Sep 22, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Now Dems are saying "nay" to Senate's relaxed dress code

Sen. John Fetterman (in shorts) walks to the Senate chambers in the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Senate's new casual dress code appears to be hanging on by a thread.

Why it matters: At least three Democrats are now openly criticizing Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's (D-N.Y.) directive to discard the 100-member chamber's requirement for business attire — and with 47 Republicans stiffly opposed, the new code could be in jeopardy.

Driving the news: Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) — who often has worn more casual clothes since returning to the Senate this spring after being treated for depression — presided over the Senate in a short-sleeve shirt on Wednesday.

  • That appearance offended some old-school Senate stalwarts in both parties and fueled some behind-the-scenes grumbling among Schumer and Fetterman's fellow Democrats, according to several senators and aides.
  • Those private misgivings burst into public Thursday when Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said, "We need to have standards when it comes to what we're wearing on the floor of the Senate."
  • "And we're in the process of discussing that right now as to what those standards will be," Durbin said on SiriusXM's POTUS channel.

Durbin joined Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va) and Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) who already were opposed. "I don't like it," Kelly said flatly on CNN Wednesday.

  • Manchin plans to "file a bipartisan resolution to ensure the Senate dress code remains consistent with previous expectations," according to a spokesperson. Manchin's effort to get signatures on his proposal is gaining momentum, according to Senate aides.
  • He has told Fetterman he's opposed to the changes.
  • On the Republican side, 46 GOP senators wrote to Schumer, asking him to reverse his decision. Sen. Katie Britt (R-Ala.) also said she was opposed but preferred to resolve the issue in private.

What we're watching: Even among Democrats who publicly dismissed the controversy as a Republican distraction, most said they'd stick to wearing business attire on the Senate floor — and said they'd require their staffs to do the same.

  • "I am not going to change what I'm doing, I will just tell you that," Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana farmer, told Axios. "My personal opinion is, you got to dress respectfully."
  • He will still demand that his staffers "dress good," he said. "It's part of the deal."
  • Schumer's office declined to comment.

The other side: Fetterman appeared to relish taunting Republicans with his new freedom.

  • "If those jagoffs [sic] in the House stop trying to shut our government down, and fully support Ukraine, then I will save democracy by wearing a suit on the Senate floor next week," Fetterman said in a statement.
  • "It's all irrelevant and silly," Fetterman told Axios. "They don't want to talk about the real issues because they have indefensible positions."
  • "They want to talk about, you know, that I dress like a slob."

Go deeper: Schumer's decision to scrap the Senate's dress code touched a nerve at a time when frustrations are building over House Republicans' inability to endorse spending plans to avoid a government shutdown on Sept. 30.

  • "It's about disrespecting the institution of the Senate created by the Constitution of the United States of America," Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told Axios. "I think it's a race to the bottom."
  • "I don't think it was necessary," Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) told Axios. "Going through the rules process would have been good."

Between the lines: The new, relaxed rule only applies to senators — and not staffers. But for staffs, there have long been two different dress codes on Capitol Hill: Recess wear and session attire.

  • When the Senate is in session, the attire is all business.
  • During recess, Senate fashion falls somewhere between a country club's 19th hole and a college campus: A mix of polo shirts, sun dresses, sockless loafers and sandals. Jeans are as common as chinos.

The bottom line: The Senate isn't going to grind to a halt over a dress code change. But it has given senators one more thing to fight over.

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