In the Aftermath of a Post-Nuclear Senate, Everyone’s Dug in Deeper
Executive branch and most judicial nominees can now be confirmed with a simple, 51-vote majority.
The sun had not set on the post-nuclear Senate, when Democrats began looking forward to confirming a slate of White House nominees as Republicans dished out doomsday forecasts on the future of the institution.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., invoked the rules change—first dubbed the "nuclear option" and later called the "Reid Rule"—and began a process in which executive and judicial nominees, though not Supreme Court justices, could be confirmed via a simple, 51-vote majority.
The upper chamber is on track to confirm Patricia Millett to the U.S. Court of Appeals-D.C. Circuit after Thanksgiving recess, and the White House has submitted a slate of other nominees to other posts. But when it comes to budget deals and other legislation—particularly bills that need 60 votes to pass—the rules change hasn't done much to create a bipartisan atmosphere.
"It puts a chill on the entire United States Senate," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "It puts a chill on everything that requires bipartisanship."
McCain, who reached a deal to thwart a rules change back in the summer, now says it's "too late" to forge an agreement to go back. He had been working for two weeks to avert what happened Thursday, including an hour-long meeting in Reid's office Wednesday night.
"I've reached [out] until my arm aches, OK?" McCain said. "They are governed by these hard-over, newer members of the Democratic caucus who have never been in the minority, who are primarily driving this issue and they succeeded. And they will pay a very, very heavy price for it."
And what could that price be? Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., isn't laying out a play-by-play on how Republicans will bite back. "I don't think this is a time to be talking about reprisal. I think it is a time to be sad about what's been done to the United States Senate, the greatest deliberative body in the world."
Republicans, like Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, warned that judicial nominees would become more and more partisan because, "the party in power is going to be pushed by base votes," he said. "The political nature of who you pick changes because you are not going to have to accommodate anybody on the other side."
Indeed, the Senate Democrats who were most vocal in support of the rules change did include a cadre of newer members who haven't served in the minority. Their arguments in favor of the change took hold this week, particularly as some of their weary, more experienced colleagues felt they had no other options.
"I feel like we've been forced into it, and I think it's terribly unfortunate," Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said. "You can't decide you want to remove judges from a circuit without getting a law passed to reduce the number of judges on that circuit. You don't get to block nominees in order to effect legislative policy, and that's what they're trying to do."
A number of Democrats are thrilled that, as they put it, the fever has been broken and they can move on to confirm judges that hadn't been blocked because of their qualifications, but because Republicans objected to Obama filling the court with his choices. "I'm not afraid of democracy," said retiring Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.
"Not uneasy at all. Happy about it," said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. "I've been supportive of it for a long time. It took us awhile to get the whole caucus there. I am thrilled to get the Senate back to work."
Republicans have argued that the rules change was a distraction, designed to remove the focus on the problems associated with the rollout of Obamacare. Landrieu, who faces a tough reelection fight back home, countered that the rules change had nothing to do with the Affordable Care Act.
"It had to do with the fact that the Senate has been at a dead standstill and there are a handful of senators led by Ted Cruz, supported by Mitch McConnell, and flamed on by David Vitter, that think they own this floor and they don't," she said. "The American people do and we're going to get back to their business."
Reid's changing of the rules basically delivered on something many Republicans say they've been expecting. Very "matter of fact," was how Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., put it. "This is something that everybody thought would come, they just didn't know when."
"We were all tired of being threatened by it," said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.
Other lawmakers tried to find a way out. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, had dinner Monday night with a group of senators who convened during the shutdown, to come up with a short-term compromise.
"It was very shortsighted of the Democrats to force this. There was a group of us working to try to come up with some sort of compromise and I think it's unfortunate that we were not given the time to try to come up with something that might have produced a different ending," Collins said.
Democrats, particularly the more apprehensive ones, were acutely aware of how their votes on Thursday could come back to haunt them. "If you've been around awhile, I think you worry about everything—including the sun coming up—coming back to haunt you," McCaskill said. "There's nothing I do that I don't worry about."