With the Senate inching towards nuclear Armageddon, and with Republicans screaming that Harry Reid is on the verge of killing the Senate forever, let’s pause to remember three important facts about this debate:
1) Democrats do not want to change the Senate rules, and only will do so if Republicans leave them no choice.
2) Democrats do not want to change the Senate rules, and only will do so if Republicans leave them no choice.
3) Democrats do not want to change the Senate rules, and only will do so if Republicans leave them no choice.
That Democrats would prefer not to change the rules with the nuclear option — eliminating the filibuster on executive nominations — should be painfully, overwhelmingly obvious to anyone who is paying even cursory attention. Democratic leaders had a chance to enact meaningful reform at the beginning of the year, but they punted because they did not have the votes to change the rules by simple majority, instead agreeing to a watered down version of reform that led inevitably to the current gridlock and impasse. As recently as a couple of weeks ago, it was not clear whether Dems had 51 votes to change the rules, even after Senate GOP obstruction continued in the wake of the earlier agreement.
Even now, it’s not totally clear they have the votes. Indeed, Reid’s strategy of challenging Republicans by demanding they approve a whole slate of nominations or face the consequences can be partly understood as an effort to put more spine into fellow Dems at the last minute.
Indeed, it’s not impossible that changing the rules could carry political risks for Democrats. Yes, polls show that the public blames the GOP more for political gridlock. But with a host of Senate Dems up for reelection next year, more chaos in the Senate could conceivably create a bit of blowback for incumbents from a public that is fed up with government dysfunction. Indeed, one person who believes this is longtime Congressional scholar Norman Ornstein, who tells me his “preference” is for Republicans to give in on high profile nominations and avoid a rules change to avoid an outbreak of even more insanity in the Senate. Given that Ornstein is a major critic of GOP obstructionism, that’s an important admission.
The debate over the filibuster is largely being framed as one over whether Harry Reid is serious or whether he is bluffing. But this is the wrong framing. Reid and Democrats are hoping to avoid changing the rules, but if Republicans keep blocking Richard Cordray and Obama’s picks for the National Labor Relations Board — for the explicit reason that they don’t want the government to function — Dems will have no choice but to change them. The current situation is untenable from a governing standpoint, and it’s increasingly unacceptable to important Dem constituencies, such as labor, and to the Dem base.
Dems don’t want to change the rules. Their preferred outcome is for Republicans to cave on just enough high-profile nominations to spare them the need to go nuclear. If Republicans don’t want Dems to go nuclear, they should just stop with the relentless obstruction already. This isn’t complicated.