As they set out to find common ground on one of the most contentious issues to face the Senate in the modern era—the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court—Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) harkened back to a past partnership between two former senators from their respective states. Joe Biden and the late John McCain had one of the upper chamber’s more productive bipartisan relationships when they served together for three decades.
Those years feel like a different era in a now hyper-partisan Washington.
But when Coons tried to convince Flake to reconsider his “yes” vote on Kavanaugh, he played the nostalgia card—and he played it well.
The pair has forged one of the Senate’s most important and successful friendships. In an era when congressional leaders make all of the decisions, Coons and Flake have figured out ways to strike deals behind the scenes—strategic agreements that force leaders to give in to the demands of the rank-and-file. While national attention often shifts from one shiny object to another, there remains a small group on the sidelines that works to keep the Senate—and the country—on its toes.
“When I say that Sen. Coons is my friend, I don’t mean it in that syrupy way that people call each other ‘my dear friend’ in Washington while gouging each other’s eyes out,” Flake said Monday night at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College. “We’re friends because we have worked together, and we’ve worked together because the constitutional framework that created our government ingeniously makes governing hard and compromise inevitable if we’re doing it right. It makes me have to consider what’s best for the people of Delaware just as it makes Chris responsive to what’s best for the people of Arizona.”
Coons and Flake aren’t the first Delawarean and Arizonan to undertake this seemingly impossible feat.
“It did not escape my attention that Sen. Biden and Sen. McCain were from Delaware and Arizona, and built an enduring friendship over decades of traveling together, working together, risking partnership—even though they genuinely disagreed with each other on a lot of policy matters,” Coons told The Daily Beast.
Since joining the Senate, Flake has found a steadfast partner in Coons, who has gained a reputation as a trustworthy centrist and a dealmaker throughout his eight years in the Senate. In addition to Flake, Coons forged a close friendship with the late McCain that also came about largely due to congressional trips to foreign countries all over the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.
“I think Sen. John McCain is smiling at Sen. Jeff Flake’s actions,” Coons said. Flake told The Daily Beast that he was thinking about McCain throughout the scramble, citing the late Arizona senator’s commitment to “regular order.”
Coons and Flake have become close friends as a result of their several trips abroad, particularly to Africa, where they’ve focused on election-monitoring and other issues as part of their duties as members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Even though they hold starkly different ideologies and have rarely voted the same way on big-ticket items, they often see a willing partner in one another, especially recently in denouncing tribal politics and the tearing-down of institutions including the press and the intelligence community.
That’s why it’s no surprise that Coons thought Flake, out of all the Republicans on the judiciary committee, would be the most receptive to a last-minute plea to pause the nomination.
As Flake was agonizing over his decision to back Kavanugh from his chair on the GOP side of the dais, Coons decided to make it even harder for him. Upon hearing from reporters that Flake would vote to confirm Kavanaugh, Coons spent 20 minutes re-writing his prepared remarks—and was still working on them as other senators were speaking—in order to persuade his friend.
“I still went and delivered [my remarks] in the hopes that it would somehow touch his heart and he would listen to his doubts and act on his conscience. And I am beyond grateful that he did,” Coons said.
It worked. A few minutes later, Flake got up from his seat on the Republican side of the dais and asked Coons to meet with him in the back room.
Soon, the entire committee was meeting privately in the small room. At one point, Flake and Coons crammed into a phone booth for a private conversation. They called Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, according to a congressional source briefed on the conversation. Rosenstein indicated to them that the FBI could investigate the allegations within a week, the source added. (Coons later told The Daily Beast that he did not speak directly with Rosenstein.) That was good enough for Coons and Flake.
Minutes later, Flake announced that he would only vote for Kavanaugh if the FBI spends a week investigating the sexual-misconduct allegations against Kavanaugh. The White House, and Senate Republican leadership, had to oblige because other on-the-fence lawmakers soon backed Flake’s motion. Without the support of that handful of senators, the nominee would almost certainly be defeated.
“The compromise that Chris and I struck on Friday is one that I take seriously, and we did it because fairness required us to do it. And we did it because in that moment our impulse to tribalism was tearing the country apart,” Flake said.
Individual senators have incredible leverage to change the debate and alter the course of a certain nomination or piece of legislation. But lawmakers rarely resort to such extreme measures because it is rarely—if ever—politically expedient to do so.
During an interview Sunday with 60 Minutes, Flake acknowledged that he couldn’t have made that move if he was running for reelection, arguing that American politics has become so tribal that there are no longer political incentives to working across the aisle and finding common ground with the other party.
Indeed, as Flake was preparing to announce his intentions, his Republican colleagues were imploring him to let it go and allow the confirmation process to proceed without interruption or further delay. Among those attempting to discourage Flake was Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), a member of the committee and the number-two Republican in the Senate. In two speeches since Flake’s controversial move, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has not mentioned the judiciary committee’s agreement to ask the White House for an FBI probe.
But while McConnell is remaining defiant and upbeat about Kavanaugh’s prospects, other conservatives are laying the groundwork to blame Flake if his overture to Democrats leads to Kavanaugh’s defeat. They said Flake capitulated to Democrats and rewarded what they viewed as destructive behavior.
“Flake truly is a fool. Setup & he fell for it. Now lib media love him. If we lose Supreme Court thank Flake. A fool if there ever was one,” conservative radio and TV host Mark Levin wrote on Twitter.
Flake, who served in the House for 12 years before his election to the Senate in 2013, has a history of getting under the leadership’s skin—and in the Trump era, he has become a frequent punching bag for the president’s allies. A conservative through and through, Flake was a rabble-rouser throughout his House tenure and a thorn in the side of House Republican leaders. His years-long crusade against earmarks, which continues today, has in particular roiled his relationships with congressional leadership. He has also recruited willing partners like Coons on immigration overhauls, efforts which have made it difficult for House and Senate leaders to keep their caucuses together over the years.
A few years ago, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) spent several days with Flake on a deserted island in the Pacific Ocean. The two have become close friends since then, and Heinrich lauded Flake for going with his gut on Friday.
“I think he was wrestling with a very hard decision,” Heinrich told The Daily Beast. “I have a great relationship with Jeff. I think both of us trust each other. And that is the commodity that is missing around here more than anything else. And if we had more trust, we would be able to do more good things.”
—Paul Steinhauser contributed reporting from Manchester, New Hampshire.