November 21, 2013
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., center left, and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., speak to the media after the Democrat majority in the Senate pushed through a major rules change, one that curbs the power of the Republican minority to block President Barack Obama's nominations for high-level judgeships and cabinet and agency officials, on Capitol Hill on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), center left, and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) speak to the media after the Democrat majority in the Senate pushed through a major rules change. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

The big mystery of today’s majority-imposed rules change in the Senate is: What happened to the deal-making Republicans?

There’s nothing much to figure out on the Democratic side. It was clear to most observers that the three-seat blockade of the D.C. Circuit Court was solidly over the line separating Democratic senators’ individual preference for maintaining the filibuster and their party interest in seating a Democratic president’s choices for the federal bench. Democrats believed that they had no choice but to proceed.

Republicans, however, certainly did have a choice. After all, in the short run, they’re clearly worse off by this change than they would be had they used the filibuster far more selectively. That was enough to get them to compromise the last time this happened. So why didn’t they hold back again?

One possibility is that they simply miscalculated, believing that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was bluffing. If that was the case, however, they could have backed off at the last second.

A second possibility is that they really wanted to eliminate the filibuster, and that they believed that the cost to the Democrats for pulling the trigger was great enough that it was worth the potential three years of majority-confirmed President Obama nominees. That’s possible, although it’s very hard to believe that voters will care at all, and Republican arguments (court-packing!) did not appear designed to appeal to those who might have been willing to condemn Democrats for a “power-grab.”

So here’s a third possibility. The problem with the summer compromise is that it was horrible for deal-making Republicans. The deal essentially said: Republicans will continue to filibuster nominations, but will supply enough votes for almost all of them so that the filibusters will be defeated. But that meant that in practice a handful of Republicans were forced to tag-team their votes, making sure that Democrats always had 60. What’s more, the shutdown fight — which began right after the Senate deal was struck — revealed that radical Republicans led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) were eager to scapegoat those same deal-making Republicans. That raised the cost of the executive branch nominations agreement for tag-teamers such as Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.). In other words, the summer deal might or might not have been stable, but it certainly couldn’t hold in a world in which the majority of Republican senators are looking for ways to separate themselves from mainstream conservatives, and then using that separation to attack them.

Those deal-making Republicans did have another option; They could have just abandoned the radicals. But over what principle? After all, the situation here is that it’s the radicals, not the mainstream conservatives, who want to hold up all these nominations. One way to look at what happened today is that the deal-makers were getting out of the way and allowing the radicals to lose. If the outcome is the same — Obama’s judicial picks get confirmed — then why should the deal-makers ask for the blame for it?

We don’t know yet, and perhaps we won’t, but my guess is that the way Cruz and other Republican radicals acted during the shutdown is what explains the difference between a successful deal in the summer and today’s nuclear action.