The Senate Must Light The Way

The Senate Must Light The Way

The Dome lantern glows in the night sky, but the Capitol shines little light on what’s happening now in our nation, right now. The late Senator Robert C. Byrd often warned of this moment — when the lights would dim on American democracy.

Coming back to me now, the noblest Roman of them all.

The courtly Byrd carried the constitution in his pocket. Always. Roman history was his favorite subject. On the floor, he explained “one of the most momentous and tragic days in the history of the world.” In 44 B.C., you see, the Roman Senate declared Julius Caesar dictator for life. The Republic was gone.

Byrd had a plum office on the Capitol veranda. How fragile it is, he told a rookie reporter.

Our light, illuminating a separate branch of government, is not yet extinguished. Under the Dome, Congress is scurrying to find its place in the presidential matrix. As disempowered as minority Democrats are, Republicans are wandering the wilderness, too. The establishment lost the election.

In politics, which operates on a thousand personal bonds, Donald Trump is an unknown.

The White House fanfare in announcing a telegenic Supreme Court Justice pick, ice-cold Colorado conservative Neil Gorsuch, underlined that another branch, the judiciary, just across First Street, is now under his iron vise. Trump likes people who “look the part,” as if casting a reality show. This one won’t be so pretty.

New York’s Charles Schumer, the new Senate Democratic leader, is calibrating equations and finding his footing with his caucus. Since Republicans have a 52-48 advantage, he is tantalizingly close to a legislative win, if he can round up a few Republican mavericks. Meanwhile, his group of 48 is restive and smoldering, some throwing off more sparks of anger, even boycotting two Republican-run confirmation hearings.

Do they feel Byrd’s ghost watching, whispering they are the last line of resistance to democracy’s worst enemy?

To show their spirit and stuff against Trump, Senate Democrats need to get their battle armor on before the Gorsuch culture war comes to town. Their best hope for that one win is Betsy DeVos’s weakened nomination for education secretary — she’s “unfit” and “incompetent,” in Schumer’s words — which looks like a rare 50-50 tie vote. Two Republican women, Maine Sen. Susan Collins and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski broke party lines on DeVos.

(Three women are the only people to defy the pugnacious president, and he hates that. Sally Yates, the acting attorney general, got fired for her stand on his travel ban.)

Vice President Mike Pence would break the tie. Finding just one more vote to defeat the DeVos nomination is the right thing. An avowed critic of public education, DeVos has never been an educator. With vast wealth, she pushes charter schools, and favors private and religious over public schools. Like several Trump nominees, she’s hostile to the agency she’s named to oversee. It’s insidious, but becoming business as usual.

On the Senate side, you feel political weather first, smack in the eye of a new storm, because the Senate (not the House) votes on Trump’s cabinet and court picks. That means senators come face to face, exchange questions and answers, and confront the radical change that’s coming in the executive branch.

Byrd would find DeVos an affront to his cherished chamber. Chances are, he’d say the same on oilman Rex Tillerson, chief of Exxon Mobil, as secretary of state with no diplomatic experience. He’d likely deplore James “Mad Dog” Mattis becoming defense secretary so soon after ending his career in a Marine general’s uniform. He was the most outspoken critic of Clarence Thomas in a 52-48 vote for Supreme Court confirmation. He opposed George W. Bush’s “drums and dogs of war.” He hated to see the Senate railroaded until the day he died in 2010.

Caesar, the military man, did not conquer Rome, his hometown, with an army. The lesson is, I hear the senator saying, “the Senate ceded power to Caesar.”

The West Virginian declared: “There was no authority in Rome that Caesar did not completely control. He had the power to declare war or peace without consulting the once great Roman Senate.”

Let it not be.

IMAGE: The U.S. Capitol Building is lit at sunset in Washington, U.S., December 20, 2016.  REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

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