December 18, 2013
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Republicans continue to obstruct; Democrats continue to threaten to eliminate obstruction. Jennifer Bendery reports:

[Senate Judiciary] Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) announced that a confirmation hearing for five district court nominees was being postponed because GOP senators had invoked the “two-hour rule” to prevent the committee from meeting beyond the first two hours of the Senate’s day….

Leahy fumed that the “Republican shutdown of the Judiciary Committee” is consistent with the obstruction the committee has endured since President Barack Obama took office. He warned that if GOP senators keep it up, he’s prepared to strip them of their tools in committee — a veiled threat to do away with the “blue slip rule,” a tradition that allows senators to advance or block judicial nominees from their home state. That rule is arguably Republicans’ best weapon for blocking Obama’s nominees now that they can’t be filibustered on the Senate floor.

We’ve seen this film before; it’s the same story. The majority party is willing to allow some obstruction because of respect for tradition, because they want the same protections for when they are in the minority and, even more important, because each has an interest in retaining the ability of every senator to wield influence. The minority party, meanwhile, has an incentive to obstruct right up to the line at which the majority gets fed up and changes the rules.

All of that is normal. What’s different is that in November the Republicans either miscalculated or chose to deliberately provoke majority-imposed reform.

Once majority-imposed reforms begin, however, it gets easier and easier to continue. So we’ll see, but it’s hard to imagine that the “blue slip” procedure will last long if Republicans continue to use it as a tool for partisan obstruction, not as a way for individual minority-party senators to have influence.

Forget about all the back-and-forth about who is to blame; forget, really, questions about what the Senate “should” be like. The key to this is the tension between what majority party senators want as Democrats and what they want as individual senators — and whether Republicans will force the issue so that what those Democratic senators aren’t getting as party loyalists swamps what they want as individual senators. If that happens, we’ll get further majority-imposed reform.

Which means that, again, it’s really up to Republicans. Do they want further majority-imposed reform? If not, they need to accept that they might be able to win some battles but, ultimately, no majority is ever going to accept minority-party rule.