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How Republicans could shut the Senate down, if they wanted to

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Could Republicans shut the Senate down if they wanted to? All of the sudden, that's not such an idle question.

As we've been noting, Democrats in the Senate are proposing to tweak the chamber's filibuster rules when the 113th Congress convenes in January. Doing so would make it somewhat more cumbersome for the GOP minority to block legislation. And Democrats argue that they can make these changes with a simple 51-vote majority — the so-called "constitutional option."

In response, some Republicans are threatening to bring the entire chamber to a halt if Democrats go forward with this. “I think the backlash will be severe,” Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) told Politico earlier this week. "It will shut down the Senate,” warned John Cornyn (R-Tex.)

So what could Republicans actually do to retaliate? In theory, quite a bit, say political scientists. The GOP could find other ways to bog down legislation beyond the filibuster. Or the party could go nuclear and prevent the Senate from getting any business done whatsoever. "It's all a matter of degree and how much they wanted to ratchet up the response," says Sarah Binder of George Washington University.

For starters, as Jonathan Bernstein points out, there are all sorts of incremental steps Republicans could take to bog down Senate business if Democrats tweaked the filibuster rules. Right now, for example, the minority doesn't usually demand its allotted 30 hours of post-cloture debate time. That could change. Of course, the problem here is that Democrats could threaten to change those rules with 51 votes, as well. So this might not be a convincing threat.

Alternatively, the GOP could threaten to shut down the Senate entirely. This is technically doable. "Keep in mind that a lot of what Senate leaders do day to day is done by unanimous consent," explains Binder. If a single senator started objecting to every little motion and maneuver, it would become impossible to conduct any legislative business at all. Some examples:

-- A 500-page amendment is brought to the floor, and the bill manager wants to dispense with the reading of the amendment? All a senator has to say is, "I object," and it's time to start reading all 500 pages out loud.

-- The Senate leader wants to waive the rule that prevents committees from meeting while the Senate is in session? A single senator can object, and, suddenly, committees can't meet.

-- Reid wants to adjourn the Senate until Jan. 3? "I object."

Any senator can do this at any time, if he or she is so inclined. Indeed, as Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute explains, this is basically what happens when a senator places a "hold" on a White House nominee. The senator is threatening to deny unanimous consent if the nomination goes forward.

There are a few precedents in the past for lawmakers bogging down the Senate. Back in 2010, then-Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) managed to deny unanimous consent for days on end in order to prevent the Senate from passing an unemployment benefits package that he thought needed to be paid for. His maneuvers earned him plenty of negative press. Other senators pleaded with him. Bunning simply shrugged and replied, "Tough shit."

But the fact that Republicans could bog down the Senate doesn't mean they necessarily would. "It's not an idle threat," says Ornstein. "But I'd also say the idea that you can shut the Senate down and keep it down, when you're a party that wants to pass an immigration bill and resolve the fiscal cliff, and when portions of government are shutting down because appropriations bills aren't passing... well, you'd have some explaining to do."

In other words, there are good political reasons why neither party has ever halted Senate activity completely for a sustained period of time. Bernstein, too, is skeptical that the GOP would go for a full-blown shutdown: "Basically, if they didn't do it so far, they had good reasons not to do it, and those reasons would not disappear with reform." But either way, it can certainly be done.

Further reading:

--How Democrats could end the filibuster with 51 votes.

--Why the filibuster reforms currently being proposed by Democrats may not change much.

--Why Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is worried about the changes anyway.