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As Senate hits 'rock bottom' over Kavanaugh, no clear path up

Protesters vented their anger in the hallways of Senate office buildings, on the steps of the US Capitol and in front of the Supreme Court.

In this file photo taken on 5 September, 2018 Judge Brett Kavanaugh testifies during the second day of his US Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing to be an Associate Justice on the US Supreme Court, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Picture: AFP

WASHINGTON – The wrenching battle over President Donald Trump's Supreme Court pick Brett Kavanaugh exposed deep political and cultural fissures in America, a divide reflected in the crisis point facing the US Senate.

Exhausted and embittered, the 100 members of the upper chamber of Congress acknowledge that their once-venerated institution plumbed new depths during the contentious fight that ended Saturday with Kavanaugh's confirmation.

The three-week dissection of the shock allegations by Christine Blasey Ford, who told a Senate panel that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her 36 years ago, and his ferocious denial did little to change minds.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham unleashed one of the most fiery tirades during the process, calling a Democratic push against Kavanaugh "the most unethical sham since I've been in politics."

Democrats gave as good as they got, with Senator Richard Blumenthal accusing Trump of a "cover-up" in a bid to see the conservative judge confirmed to the high court, thus cementing its tilt to the right.

Protesters vented their anger in the hallways of Senate office buildings, on the steps of the US Capitol and in front of the Supreme Court.

The war left few unscathed, and many agonising over the future of the Senate, which was once defined by civility and its bipartisan achievements.

"We've hit rock bottom and we've got certainly nowhere to go but up... so I hope we all learn from this and do better," the Senate’s number two Republican, John Cornyn, told AFP.

Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said the nomination fiasco was an "abysmal definition" of how the system ought to work.

"The American political process has descended down to a point that I have never seen in my political career and I've been here for 42 years," he said.

Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut sounded particularly aggrieved, blasting Republicans for how they handled a one-week supplemental FBI investigation of the assault allegations.

"No comity or tradition left. It’s just about power politics," he tweeted.

'FRAYED' POLITICAL TIES

The downward spiral in the Senate has been a few years in the making.

Democrats who controlled the chamber in 2013 under then president Barack Obama employed the so-called "nuclear option" to allow his judicial nominees, except those for the Supreme Court, to advance by simple majority, rather than meeting the traditional 60-vote threshold.

In 2017, Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell went super-nuclear, setting a simple majority threshold for Supreme Court nominees - and getting Trump's first pick Neil Gorsuch onto the bench after blocking Obama's final nominee Merrick Garland, enraging Democrats.

Discussions with several senators from both parties suggest most still believe a return to normalcy and comity is possible.

Markey said while political relationships have "frayed," the personal bonds of the 100 members remain solid.

Jim Risch, a Republican from Idaho, agreed, saying the friendships that cross party lines are genuine.

But he acknowledged he saw no quick fix for what he called "the raw edges of this polarisation" afflicting American politics.

"I really don't have an answer. The country is badly polarised, and they elect people to represent them here who have the same point of view that they do," he said recently.

"The result is you've got Americans split on what the country should be."

'LOW POINT'

Senators on both sides of the aisle also insist that opportunities for bipartisanship still exist.

McConnell called the current partisan divide a "low point," but pointed at continued compromise, citing passage of a much-anticipated opioids bill and a critical, five-year funding reauthorisation for the Federal Aviation Administration.

Late last month, lawmakers passed an $854 billion spending bill that averted a government shutdown.

"So the notion that the Senate is somehow broken over this is simply inaccurate," McConnell said Sunday on CBS's Face the Nation.

‘WE NEED HEALING’

Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat often discussed as a possible 2020 presidential hopeful, said it will be "tough" to return to work Tuesday and face her colleagues who pushed through Kavanaugh's nomination.

"I think you just put your head down and get to work," she said. "But I don't think people are going to forget."

Lasting tensions are likely.

"Right now, feelings are pretty raw," said Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, the only Republican to reject Kavanaugh.

Her close friend, moderate Republican Senator Susan Collins, also wavered on Kavanaugh.

But the two Republicans ultimately fell on opposing sides, with Collins supporting his confirmation.

The pair shared a hug on the Senate floor following the climactic vote.

"We need healing," Murkowski told reporters afterwards.

"Around here, it's pretty contentious, partisan, pointed, divisive," she added. "The Senate's no place for sissies."

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