WASHINGTON – A fierce exchange between U.S. senators during a confirmation hearing for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh escalated Thursday morning to U.S. Sen. Cory Booker daring U.S. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn to move to oust him from the chamber.
Cornyn, a Texas Republican and senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, served as the lead spokesman for Republicans on the committee Thursday morning as multiple senators tangled over the confidentiality process within the committee. Cornyn began the day with a warning to Senate Democrats early to not release confidential committee documents from Kavanaugh's time on President George W. Bush's staff unless they had been cleared for public release.
Booker, a New Jersey Democrat and more junior member of the committee, quickly jumped into the fray by echoing previous Democratic complaints about Republican unwillingness to release those records in a timely manner, if at all. But Booker then went further. He announced his office would release a document pertaining to racial profiling as an act of "civil disobedience."
What happened next between Booker, Cornyn and several other senators on the committee reflected the charged atmosphere of the hearings and the stakes involved with Kavanaugh's confirmation to the nation's highest court.
Booker charged that Republicans were hiding behind arguments of national security and privacy to avoid disclosing the documents to the public.
"I am going to release the email about racial profiling, and I understand that the penalty comes with potential ousting from the Senate, and [if] Sen. Cornyn believes I violated Senate rules, I openly invite and accept the consequences of my team releasing that email right now," Booker said. "And I'm releasing it to expose that – number one, the emails [that] are being withheld from the public have nothing to do with national security."
Cornyn fired back, alluding to widespread speculation that Booker intends to run for president in 2020.
"Running for president is no excuse for violating the rules of the Senate or of confidentiality of the documents that we are privy to," Cornyn said in response. "This is no different from the senator deciding to release classified information that is deemed classified by the executive branch because you happen to disagree with the classification decision. That is irresponsible and outrageous.”
“And I hope that the senator will reconsider his decision because no senator deserves to sit on this committee, or serve in the Senate in my view, if they decide to be a law unto themselves and willingly flout the rules of the Senate and the determination of confidentiality and classification," he added. "That is irresponsible and conduct unbecoming a senator."
At one point, Cornyn read aloud the Senate rules for ousting a colleague.
A succession of Democratic senators then engaged in the escalating discussion, calling the process for keeping some of Kavanaugh's documents confidential arbitrary and illegitimate.
Cornyn's Democratic counterpart in rank, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, backed up Booker – as did several other Democratic senators.
"I am particularly sorry that he singled out one of our colleagues on this side and accused him of conduct unbecoming of a United States senator," Durbin said. "I think statements like that are personal, they are disparaging, they question the motive of a colleague – something we should do our best to avoid in the United States Senate if we are ever going to be able to restore the reputation of this body."
In response to his colleagues, Booker compared himself to Spartacus, the character in Stanley Kubrick's 1960 film who sees his followers offer themselves up for his execution by declaring "I am Spartacus" to Roman authorities.
"My colleagues, numerous of them, said they, too, accept the responsibility," Booker said. "There were very serious charges that were made against me by my colleague from Texas. I don't know if they were political bluster or sincere feelings."
"There actually are Senate rules governing the behavior of senators," Booker continued. "If he feels that I, and now fellow colleagues who were with me have violated those rules, if he's not a tempest in a teapot, but sincerely believes that, then bring the charges."
And then it all appeared to be for naught.
A Cornyn spokesman emailed reporters later in the day, stating that the restrictions on the documents were lifted early Thursday morning, were made ready for release and senators were made aware of this development prior to the hearing.
For most of Thursday morning, Kavanaugh was a mere spectator to the committee's fireworks. But his appointment has become one of the most contentious in recent history as his confirmation to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy is expected to pull the court further to the right on abortion and several other contentious issues.
An added layer to the drama could come this weekend: Booker is scheduled to headline Saturday's Texas Democratic Party Johnson-Jordan dinner in Austin.
The partisan fervor continued into the afternoon when Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, accused Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, of using his "questioning as an opportunity to impugn the residents of North Carolina and the residents of Texas." Cruz was responding to Whitehouse after Whitehouse quoted a U.S. District Court for Texas’s Southern District decision that described Texas as having a "penchant for discrimination ... with respect to voting."
The case Whitehouse quoted, Veasey vs. Perry, noted that "in every redistricting cycle since 1970, Texas has been found to have violated the [Voting Rights Act] with racially gerrymandered districts."
“I will point out in the state of Texas, we had just a few years back, three statewide elected African American officials, all Republican I might note, which I believe at the time was the most of any state in the union and I think it’s the case that Rhode Island has none,” Cruz said to Whitehouse, referring to a time when Michael Williams served on the Railroad Commission and Wallace Jefferson and Dale Wainwright served on the Texas Supreme Court. All three of those Republicans have since left statewide office.
Whitehouse apologized before Cruz questioned Kavanaugh.
"For the record, I apologize to my colleague if he takes any umbrage to my reference to the general residents from Texas," Whitehouse said. "This was a specific quote from a federal court decision in Texas referring to the decision makers in that case."