Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski broke ranks with Republicans on Wednesday, voting to confirm Vanita Gupta as associate attorney general.
Explaining her vote, Murkowski said this on the Senate floor:
“I asked her point blank, ‘Why do you want this? Is this worth it?’ Because this has clearly been very hard on her as a nominee. And she paused and reflected a moment, and just spoke to how she feels called to serve in a very personal way that I thought was impactful.”
“I am going to give the benefit of the doubt to a woman who I believe has demonstrated throughout her professional career to be deeply, deeply committed to matters of justice.”
Wait, wait. So you’re saying that you voted for someone on their resume and qualifications for a job to which they had been nominated rather than simply voting against her because she is a Democratic nominee who might take positions you don’t like?
How, well, quaint!
It wasn’t all that long ago that senators tended to give deference to a president’s pick for Cabinet (and sub-Cabinet) posts — and even Supreme Court nominees.
Twenty years ago, John Ashcroft, a deeply divisive figure in American politics, got 58 votes in the Senate to be confirmed as George W. Bush’s attorney general. Among the Democrats who voted for Ashcroft were Sens. Chris Dodd (Connecticut), Byron Dorgan (North Dakota) and Ben Nelson (Nebraska).
Four years later, John Roberts was confirmed to the Supreme Court with 78 votes. In 2009, 68 senators voted to confirm Sonia Sotomayor to the Court. The following year 63 senators voted to confirm Elena Kagan.
What changed? Two moments:
1) Republicans’ refusal to even meet with Merrick Garland following then- President Barack Obama’s nomination of him to fill the vacancy on the court created by the death of Antonin Scalia in 2016.
2) The deeply personal and massively divisive 2018 confirmation fight over Brett Kavanaugh.
The first convinced Democrats that Republicans in the Senate weren’t honest brokers. The second convinced Republicans in the Senate that Democrats were purely motivated by partisanship and would stop at nothing to defeat a nominee of then-President Donald Trump.
Which means that we should take Murkowski’s decision to vote for Gupta as associate attorney general with a grain of salt. While it’s an important role within the Justice Department, it’s not a Supreme Court seat. And Murkowski is VERY much an outlier within the Republican Party — so much so that Trump has made beating her in her 2022 reelection race a top priority.
The Point: It speaks to how far we have fallen that a senator voting to confirm a nominee based on her actual qualifications for and interest in the job is big news.