If one needed another example of just how rare this moment is in American politics, one should pay attention to what US Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is up to.
McConnell reportedly told his Republican colleagues this week that should fellow Republican Roy Moore of Alabama win the special Senate election next month, he would support an effort to expel him from the chamber.
Those comments were in private. But publicly, McConnell wasn’t backing off.
“If he were to be sworn in, he would immediately be in a process before the Senate Ethics Committee,” McConnell said at a Wall Street Journal conference. By process, he means the beginnings of actions to expel Moore, who is accused of sexual misconduct involving several teenage girls. “He would be sworn in and be asked to testify under oath and it would be a rather unusual beginning, probably an unprecedented beginning.”
Yes, it would be an unprecedented beginning. No one in the nation’s history has been sworn in to the Senate and then immediately expelled by a vote. In fact, the last time someone was expelled from the Senate was in 1862.
That was 155 years ago, when the nation was in the beginning stages of the Civil War. Between 1860 and 1861, 11 states had announced they were leaving the union. This left the question of what would happen to the 22 senators from those states. Some never showed up in Washington, but others did, and Senate leaders had to decide what to do with them. Ultimately, 10 were expelled by a vote, under charges of aiding the Confederate rebellion. That brought the tally to 15 expulsions to that point in history.
If you’re wondering, the House of Representatives has expelled only five members over the years, though it has censured many more for a variety of bad behavior.
It would take a two-thirds vote of his peers for Moore to become the 16th senator booted from the chamber. Under the current Senate makeup, that would mean 19 Republicans would have to join all of the Democrats to get rid of him. And it would be the first time ever that a senator has been expelled for sexual misconduct.
It’s not that such allegations have never previously roiled the Senate. In fact, it has previously begun proceedings to expel two members amid sexual misconduct allegations. But both of those senators resigned before a vote came up. The most recent example occurred six years ago, when Nevada Republican Senator John Ensign was found to have had financial misdealings as a way to cover up an affair with a staffer’s wife. Ensign eventually resigned before the Senate took action. In 1995, Oregon Senator Bob Packwood resigned amid sexual harassment allegations.
Moore, it seems, isn’t going to back out quietly. On Wednesday evening, the Senate hopeful tweeted at McConnell: “Bring. It. On.”
Despite that tough talk, a lot would have to happen at this point for Moore to even get elected to the Senate. This week, in the wake of multiple allegations of misconduct, and unconvincing denials by the candidate, his poll numbers took a nose dive. One Republican poll showed that in a matter of days, Moore went from winning the race to being down by 12 percentage points. Officially, all Republican Party operations outside of Alabama have dropped their support.
Even if Moore were to win, the New York Times reports that there was discussion inside of the White House to ask Alabama’s governor not to certify results of the race, or to have the Senate find a means of not accepting those results.
Either of those possibilities is unlikely if Moore posts a solid win at the ballot box Dec. 12. If, on the other hand, it’s a close contest, there is precedent. In 1974, a New Hampshire Senate race was so closely decided that the Senate held off on seating the winner until a rematch special election was held a year later to determine the winner. And the US Senate didn’t seat Minnesota Democrat Al Franken for months in 2009 because that vote, too, was so close (this week, Franken might have other problems . . .).
If the Senate does try to block seating Moore, the law might be on Moore’s side. In 2009, it tried to block Illinois Democrat Roland Burris from serving because there were real accusations that the Illinois governor had sold the Senate appointment to fill Barack Obama’s remaining term. Burris sued and won in the courts. He went on to serve until a special election was held to replace him.
While the talk this week of expelling a would-be Senator Moore would be a rare moment in US history, this has been a year of rare moments. There are television ads and resolutions calling for the impeachment of the president. There are questions every day whether House Republicans will oust Paul Ryan as House speaker. There is the matter of whether the House and Senate could both flip to Democratic control, setting up potentially a completely different Trump presidency. And then there was the bizarre development Thursday that a judge had declared a mistrial in the corruption case against New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez.
Depending on how that saga ends, imagine if the Senate were forced to consider expelling not one, but two senators?James Pindell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics: http://pages.email.bostonglobe.com/GroundGameSignUp.