In 2008, as the country faced a catastrophic financial crisis, the House did what it sometimes does: went off the rails. In a loud and surprising vote, lawmakers rejected a $700 billion bank bailout, sending markets tumbling as the economy faltered. It was the more stable Senate that had to step in and take over, find a way to approve the bill and show the House how it was done.
This has often been the case in Washington. When the unruly House, with its perilous two-year election cycle, collapses, the Senate should step up, providing the adult oversight needed in the legislative world. But developments over the past week show those days may be coming to an end. The august Senate – at least on the Republican side – looks more and more like its chaotic counterpart in the Rotunda every day.
The Senate Republican Conference, as it is known, is publicly more divided and feuding than at any time in recent memory, a rare development for a group led by Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and minority leader, who always took great care to conceal internal conflicts. Mr. McConnell himself is now facing scathing criticism from the far-right grassroots while conservatives offer scathing criticism of his management.
These days, Republican senators say their weekly lunches often turn into angry complaining sessions. They have divided into warring factions, the same dynamic that has stymied the House majority.
After spending months demanding that Democrats agree to tough border security provisions as a condition for providing more aid to Ukraine, Senate Republicans immediately rejected the resulting bipartisan legislative proposal. Republican opponents distorted major elements of the plan, even though it was written by one of their own, the very conservative and popular Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma.
This set off a Kafkaesque loop in which Republicans, who had just blocked a proposal to tie border enforcement to foreign aid, immediately turned around and demanded they be given the option to add border restrictions to the foreign aid program, otherwise they would block it again. .
Members of the Senate have always been very proud to say that they are different from the House, but that is not such an easy argument to make at the moment.
“This is not the Senate I'm used to sitting in,” said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, one of four Republicans who voted in favor of the legislation with border provisions that was passed. rejected so spectacularly. “The personal attacks and reluctance to try to work together to find a solution acceptable to all is disappointing. This is very serious.”
The reasons for this development are multiple. A growing number of Republican senators come from the MAGA wing of the party, dominated by former President Donald J. Trump, and are not content to follow tribal customs and quietly stand by while conservative leaders more traditional ones are steering the ship. Instead, they like to shake things up. This earned them praise from their voters and attention from the conservative media ecosystem, which helped grow their numbers and influence.
“We now have critical mass here in the Senate,” Sen. Mike Braun, Republican of Indiana, said Wednesday in an interview on Fox Business Network. He described what its members called the Breakfast Club, including far-right Republican senators such as Ted Cruz of Texas, Rick Scott of Florida, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
“Now there are quite a few of us here,” Mr. Braun said. “And we’re gathering other people to come with us.” It’s the change in dynamic.
Like the far-right faction in the House, right-wing Republican senators are also ideological purists who only want what they want and are not interested in the traditional legislative horse-trading that defines the Senate. Their goal is primarily to stop laws they find objectionable – even if their own Republican colleagues agree.
But above all there is Mr. Trump. A majority of Republican senators support his candidacy and are unwilling to advance a bill — even if it resembles a Republican-drafted border bill — if the former president and likely nominee disapproves or if it could prove detrimental to his campaign.
Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, found this out the hard way, as the border legislation he spent countless hours negotiating with Mr. Lankford and Senator Kyrsten Sinema, independent of Arizona, was summarily rejected by the Republicans.
“Previously, they weren't under Donald Trump's spell in the same way that Republicans in the House of Representatives were,” Mr. Murphy said of his Republican colleagues in the Senate. “They are now. Previously, they were ready to break with Trump. But not anymore.”
Mr. Murphy said he hoped the Trumpification of Senate Republicans would be a temporary condition. But the institution's trend lines worry some veteran Republicans.
Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, also supported the foreign aid and immigration package and was outspoken in her frustration with the state of the Senate and the treatment Mr. Lankford received from his own colleagues.
“It became personal. The situation has become so polarized that people no longer have the benefit of the doubt,” she said in an interview. “That’s what’s new. Partisan division is nothing new, but there is an internal division that is eating away at us. And it’s discouraging, because I fear that it will shatter this institution that has been so strong and so resilient.”
After the border fiasco, a bipartisan coalition in the Senate moved to save military aid to Ukraine and Israel and managed to advance an emergency spending package that is slowly passing the Senate. Despite resistance from conservatives, the bill is expected to pass in the coming days, but its future in the House, where the far right opposes aid to Ukraine, is uncertain.
Even if the Senate succeeds in passing the measure, Ms. Murkowski and others remain concerned about what they fear will be a downward trajectory for the upper chamber.
“I feel a sadness about the institution right now,” she said. “Not necessarily so much about this vote, but about the institution itself.”