Democrats are threatening to change the Senate’s filibuster rules. They should think twice before they do it.

July 10, 2013

Senate Democrats are mad as hell and they aren't going to take it anymore when it comes to what they argue is the obstruction for obstruction's sake that their Republican counterparts are practicing when it comes to votes on President Obama's nominees for cabinet positions and agency posts.

A nuclear explosion. REUTERS photo.
A nuclear explosion. REUTERS photo.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) is set to convene a special caucus meeting on Thursday to strategize about whether or not his fellow Democrats want to exercise the so-called “nuclear option” of changing Senate rules to eliminate filibusters on these sorts of nominees and instead have a simple majority vote for confirmation. (The current bar to end filibusters is 60 votes; 67 votes are traditionally required to change Senate rules.)

While Reid has threatened this sort of change before -- and never made good on it -- there does seem to be some belief among smart people on Capitol Hill that the long-awaited confrontation might be coming. (The New York Times wrote a nice primer on how we got to this point.)

There may well be legitimate procedural and policy reasons for Reid to seriously entertain changing the rules. But, the political consequences of doing so are all bad for Democrats and should give the Senate Majority Leader pause before he agrees to the change.

Here's why.

Reid and his Democratic allies seem to believe that by limiting the rule change to simply cabinet and agency appointments, they can keep the long-term implications on the chamber to a minimum.

But, politics works on the slippery slope principle. That means that if Democrats cross the line to change a rule to benefit them when they are in the majority, it sets a precedent for rule-changing that is not limited to filibusters on agency and cabinet nominees in future Senates -- including those controlled by Republicans.

"Once the trigger is pulled, there would be no limit to the consequences. Not just for Republicans or for our country – but for Democrats too," warned Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on the floor today. "They should think very carefully about what the ramifications will be for them when a future Republican President makes his own appointments to the Cabinet and the federal bench."

And, McConnell has spent time over the past few weeks on the Senate floor musing about what sorts of legislation he might bring to the floor if Republicans re-take control of the Senate and the filibuster rules are fungible.

Since being a little bit pregnant on changing the Senate rules is, in practice, almost impossible there is an argument to be made that Democrats should push the argument to its logical conclusions -- adjusting Senate rules to allow all filibusters to be broken by a simple majority vote.

The likely result of such a move, at least in the short term, would be that more liberal legislation would move through the Senate thanks to the Democratic majority and Republicans' inability to exert their blocking tactics.

Not only would that put some of the more moderate Democratic Senators up for re-election in 2014 -- Mark Begich, Mary Landrieu, Mark Pryor, Kay Hagan -- into a tough spot -- but, because the House is Republican-controlled, that legislation would die in the lower chamber. People like Begich, Landrieu etc would have to walk the political plank for not all that much.

The longer term consequences are even more politically daunting for Democrats. Due to two straight decennial redistricting processes that have made the vast majority of House seats safe for one of the two parties, it's easy to see Republicans maintaining their current House majority all the way through the decade. In the Senate, on the other hand, there is a real chance that Republicans re-claim the majority in the 2014 midterm elections.

If that happened, Republicans would not only have full control over the legislative levers of power but also something close to what they would interpret as a blank check to adjust the Senate rules to their liking. That would be something close to Democrats' nightmare scenario -- particularly in the final two years of President Obama's time in office.

It's possible that, sensing these potential political problems, Reid might step back from the ledge -- as he did earlier this year when, in response to Democratic agitation to re-examine the rules, he okayed a bipartisan bill that streamlined some procedures in the Senate but left the 60-vote threshold to break filibusters in place.

But, it's also possible that, pressured by his own caucus, Reid might give in to their demands on the filibusters of agency and cabinet nominees. If he does, Reid is opening a political Pandora' box that even he -- a consummate pol who tends to see a few steps ahead of most of his colleagues -- might not grasp the full impact of.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Chris Cillizza · July 10, 2013