As the nuclear fallout settles from yesterday’s blowing up of the Senate filibuster on nominations, a meme is taking hold that the move will make things a whole lot worse in Washington. Blares the New York Times: “Partisan fever in Senate likely to rise.” Former Senator Olympia Snowe insists the rules change “escalates what is already a hyperpartisan atmosphere.”
Threats of retaliation are rampant. Mitch McConnell warns Dems: “you may regret this a lot sooner than you think.” NBC News adds: “The acrimony could cause meaningful action in the Senate to grind to a halt.”
This is mostly nonsense. The notion that Dems pushed the envelope in ways that will make partisanship worse in Washington is worth dwelling on, because it’s of a piece with a broader refusal to reckon with the ways in which the paralysis is rooted in an unconventional situation.
The current stalemate is not about lawmakers’ partisan emotion or anger towards one another. It’s about structural factors, among them the fact that many House Republicans reside in safe districts, insulated from national opinion, where the incentives (the desire to avoid primary challenges; the promise of plaudits from the conservative entertainment complex) tilt heavily against cooperation or any accommodation with Obama. Congressional scholar Norman Ornstein emails:
Any bills that would pass the Senate over the objection of Republicans are going nowhere in the House. And any bills that Mitch McConnell would see in the Republicans political interest are going to pass; he is not going to jettison something that would serve him or his party on the “principle” that it should fail because of the filibuster change.
Right. There are two ways for measures sought by Obama and Dems to get Senate Republican support. One is if McConnell decides letting something through (he helped negotiate an end to the shutdown) is necessary for the good of the GOP. The other is if a few Republican Senators peel off and go with Democrats, despite widespread GOP opposition. Could the latter happen less readily now? Perhaps, but the statement from one of these Senate Republicans, Susan Collins, was tepid and equivocal on whether this will even matter to future legislation: “We’ll have to see, but I think it was certainly unfortunate.”
And even if stuff Obama wants does pass the Senate, we’ve already seen that it is DOA in the House in any case, as with immigration reform. The things that have passed the House — such as the Violence Against Women Act – only got through because the House GOP leadership decided blocking them was untenable for the party. Does the nuke option poison things so much that another government shutdown is more likely? Hard to see why. Republicans already shut down the government and only caved when their position was no longer politically tenable for the party overall. Anger over the nuke option won’t change the fact that there is now even less of an appetite among Republicans to damage the party again heading into 2014. Sure, a budget deal may prove elusive, but that was already likely, due to unbridgeable differences over revenues that go back years.
In other words, the basic dynamic is still the same. Republicans will obstruct as much of Obama’s agenda as possible, because of the built in incentives for individual lawmakers to continue doing so — which, if anything, are exacerbated with 2014 looming and Republicans maneuvering for the 2016 GOP presidential primary — except when it threatens to do overall damage to the party that outweighs those incentives.
* NUKE OPTION WILL HELP OBAMA’S AGENDA: Indeed, the basic story of Obama’s second term has always been that the primary way he will advance his agenda is through executive action. And as Zachary Goldfarb reports in a must read, the nuke option has, if anything, made this easier, because he will be able to staff key positions more readily and executive actions will be more likely to survive court challenge.
The move to allow a simple majority vote on most executive and judicial nominees also sets the stage for Obama to appoint new top officials to the Federal Reserve and other key agencies — probably leading to more aggressive action to stimulate the economy and housing market. And it frees Obama to make changes to his Cabinet without the threat of long delays in the Senate before the confirmation of nominees. [...]
The [D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals] is likely to help decide whether Obama can enact new Environmental Protection Agency regulations limiting greenhouse-gas emissions by power plants — a key element of his second-term plan to combat climate change — as well as a variety of other rules affecting the environment and the financial industry.
The storyline that things will be a whole lot worse right now seems rooted in a failure to appreciate the true nature of GOP obstructionism during the last five years.
* GOP OBSTRUCTIONISM IS STILL VERY MUCH ALIVE: The New York Times’ big overview of the Senate Dem decision to end the filibuster on nominations aptly explains why Republicans still have plenty of tools in their arsenal if they want to continue gumming up the works:
Republicans may not be able to muster the votes to block Democrats on procedure, but they can force every nomination into days of debate between every procedural vote in the Senate book — of which there will be many. And legislation, at least for now, is still very much subject to the filibuster. On Thursday afternoon, as one Republican after another went to the Senate floor to lament the end of one type of filibuster, they voted against cutting off debate on the annual defense policy bill, a measure that has passed with bipartisan support every year for decades.
Yup. But this is not materially different from what we’ve already seen for years.
* WHY SENATE DEMS WENT NUCLEAR: Democrats are distributing a Congressional Research Service memo that helps explain why Dems felt they ultimately had no choice but to change the rules: The key figure is that of all of the the cloture motions we’ve seen on nominations since 1949, nearly half of them came since 2009.
* SUPPORT FOR HEALTH LAW PLUMMETING: The November tracking poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that the percentage of Americans who view the Affordable Care Act favorably has dropped to a dismal 33 percent, and that this drop was mostly driven by an erosion among Democrats.
To reiterate, this is as it should be. The administration made a huge mess of the rollout, so disapproval is appropriate. What remains to be seen is whether this translates into a wholesale giving up on the law — which is linked to the other question that matters, i.e., whether the law will work over time.
* OBAMACARE DIVIDES REPUBLICANS: Jonathan Martin has a must read on how Obamacare, and in particular, the challenge of what to do about the Medicaid expansion, is dividing Republican governors. Those with an eye on 2016, naturally, are more hostile to the expansion. As Martin delicately puts it:
These early divisions reveal not only the difficult calculations of ambitious Republican politicians as they look to the next presidential campaign, but also the complexities of being a governor rather than a lawmaker at a time when the party’s base is hostile to those who cooperate with Democrats.
Meanwhile, those who are getting the base very, very angry by opting in to the expansion are arguing — get this — that it is good for their constituents.
* KRUGMAN ENDORSES EXPANDING SOCIAL SECURITY: The idea continues to gain momentum, as Paul Krugman devotes today’s column to explaining why expanding Social Security, not cutting it, is the right thing to do. Krugman argues raising the retirement age is misguided, because those living longer tend to be affluent, and that those entering retirement are facing a sharp decline in living standards. Krugman forthrightly admits:
Yes, this would cost money, and it would require additional taxes — a suggestion that will horrify the fiscal scolds, who have been insisting that if we raise taxes at all, the proceeds must go to deficit reduction, not to making our lives better. But the fiscal scolds have been wrong about everything, and it’s time to start thinking outside their box. Realistically, Social Security expansion won’t happen anytime soon. But it’s an idea that deserves to be on the table — and it’s a very good sign that it finally is.
This is, at bottom, an argument over priorities, and as I’ve argued, it will become one of the key issues around which the debate will unfold over how economically progressive the Democratic Party of the future should be.
* AND YOUR SORELY NEEDED COMIC RELIEF, JOHN BOEHNER EDITION: Brian Beutler demonstrates that Obamacare is a really awesome deal for a certain 64-year-old smoker.