January 23, 2013

What are the incentives for Republicans on Senate reform?

Sens. Harry Reid and Mitch Mcconnell (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Sens. Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) has been, quite properly in my view, offering them a choice: work out a bipartisan package of moderate reforms that can be passed with the 67 votes required by Senate rules (or perhaps with 60 but having reform expire at the end of the current Congress), or else Democrats will move forward with a much stronger package of majority-imposed reform.

But what if Republicans are optimists? After all, right now filibusters really only matter on nominations; for legislation, anything that Republicans hate which passes the Senate with a narrow partisan majority will certainly be DOA in the House. And, really, the minority party’s only incentive on executive branch nominations is to oppose them, not to defeat them. That leaves just judicial nominations that might pass more easily with effective Senate reform.

If Republicans are optimists, they’ll figure that there’s no way they’ll lose the House given that midterms usually favor the out party, and they’ll give themselves an excellent chance of regaining the Senate in 2014 – and the White House in 2016.

In other words, if you’re a Republican optimist, you may well feel that the downside of Senate reform in the current 113th Congress is worth it in order to have the upside in a potential unified Republican government in four years.

So do you just support Senate reform? Ah, no, you may choose not to do so. Even better than that is to get the Democrats to do it by themselves — and do it not by a bipartisan agreement, but by setting a precedent for majority-imposed reform. That way, Republicans can spend the next few months taking cheap shots at Democrats for “breaking” the rules to change the rules, while being perfectly set up to follow that precedent if they want a Senate run by the majority party in the future.

Is all of that worth, say, a Supreme Court confirmation or two? Tough call! On the other hand, it doesn’t appear that any of the proposed reforms would come anywhere close to making Republicans pay that price, even if Democrats fully implement the Merkley/Udall plan (in my view, their “talking filibuster” idea will be a bust across the board, but I believe virtually everyone agrees that it wouldn’t be sufficient to stop a determined filibuster on the highest-intensity issues).

Now, a lot of Republicans probably want to preserve the status quo, or something like it, because of their interests as individual senators. So I’m not sure where that takes them. And of course Republican senators might not be optimists after all; the logic of the position is a lot different if you believe that Democrats are more likely to hold the Senate for the next few terms, that they could easily take over the House and that Democrats have a bit of an edge for the presidency, too.

But overall, it’s really easy for me to imagine a large group of Republican senators loudly opposing Senate reform while privately wishing that Democrats will go nuclear. Which means that Democrats who really want a deal might find it harder than they might expect.