April 8, 2013

The big news over the weekend was that Harry Reid is getting increasingly frustrated with Republican obstruction on nominations, and is now threatening to do something about it.

There’s a tendency among liberals, especially, to discount the threat because they feel that Reid has made it in the past and it’s turned out to be a bluff. I don’t think that’s the right way to read it, however.

What’s happened, instead, is that Reid has been steadily escalating his threat — and to some extent making good on his threats. Remember that during the 111th Congress in 2009-10, Reid resisted filibuster reform almost entirely while Mitch McConnell and the Republicans established the 60 vote Senate. In 2011-2012, when filibusters mattered most for nominations thanks to the new GOP majority in the House, Reid declared that he would be for reform — but only in the following Congress. What followed was modest, but it was in fact reform.

And now, as far as I know for the first time, Reid is threatening immediate majority-imposed reform during the current Congress (which, as Brian Beutler reminds us, is certainly possible within Senate rules).

The other part of this is that the context of all these threats is that majority-imposed reform, especially mid-session, is widely seen as a blunt force, and one that many Democrats would prefer not to take if they see any other option. That frustrates many liberals — but nevertheless, it’s very real. And it means that even quite meaningful reform may wind up being far short of what many liberals want.

Basically, what most, and perhaps all, Democratic senators want is to return to a world in which Republicans could still kill some nominations and bills with filibusters, but most nominations would be subject to a simple majority vote, just as most of them were before 2009. But that’s hard to do by rule. The best way to get there is to get Republicans to stop abusing the process. Threatening to impose reform is the best weapon available for Reid, including steadily increasing threats of stronger and stronger reform.

Remember: While Republican obstruction is enormous, and while the GOP has imposed a 60-vote requirement for everything, it’s still not true that Republicans are blocking everything. After all, eight judges, including three at the appeals level, have been confirmed this year. As have executive branch nominees such as John Kerry and, yes, Chuck Hagel. That’s not good enough! GOP blockading of some executive branch posts in order to nullify laws that can only be carried out by a confirmed nominee is outrageous; so is the apparent blockading of the D.C. Circuit Court, and so is the general foot-dragging on all nominations. But the truth is that figuring out exactly where to draw the line, and then bringing the rest of the Democratic caucus along for imposing a solution few of them really like, is a tough call.

That doesn’t mean that Reid has negotiated it perfectly; I think he could have pressed hard for simple majority cloture on executive branch nominees, for example, in the last round of reform instead of focusing narrowly so hard on the “motion to proceed,” which in my view makes less of a difference. The key takeaway, however, is that unprecedented obstruction has put senators who care about the Senate in a tough spot, and the blame here should fall squarely on Mitch McConnell and the Republicans for creating an impossible situation for Reid and the Democrats. Given that, Reid is acting in perhaps the only reasonable way. It’s good to see him ramp up the threats — just remember that if the threats work perfectly, there will be no rules changes at all and there will still be some filibusters.