Harry Reid Went Nuclear. Here’s How Senate Republicans Can Hit Back

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 19: U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks to reporters following the weekly policy lunch of the Republican caucus November 19, 2013 in Washington, DC. McConnell spoke on continued problems with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act during his remarks.
National Journal
Michael Catalin and Elahe Izadi
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Michael Catalin Elahe Izadi
Nov. 26, 2013, 12:42 p.m.

If you’re look­ing for a co­ordin­ated Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an tac­tic­al re­sponse to Harry Re­id’s nuc­le­ar det­on­a­tion, you’re not likely to find it any time soon.

Re­pub­lic­ans have no pro­por­tion­al coun­ter­at­tacks now that the ma­jor­ity lead­er has scorched the fili­buster on nom­in­ees. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have any means to strike back.

There are plenty of pro­ced­ur­al tools GOP sen­at­ors can use to ex­tract smal­ler wins or in­flict some pain on Demo­crats in the in­ter­im, but ul­ti­mately the best way for the minor­ity to re­tali­ate is to win a ma­jor­ity in 2014, say Cap­it­ol Hill strategists and ad­visers.

The Sen­ate’s re­li­ance on un­an­im­ous con­sent to pass many bills provides Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans with a power­ful lever to pull. UC is of­ten used to move non­con­tro­ver­sial bills quickly through the up­per cham­ber. Some Re­pub­lic­ans say that’s not likely to hap­pen as of­ten now. “There will be no UCs,” sug­ges­ted a former seni­or GOP aide. “You won’t be able to get a UC to go to the bath­room.”

Already, con­ser­vat­ives out­side the Cap­it­ol are ur­ging Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, R-Ky., to ex­er­cise this op­tion. Red State, the in­flu­en­tial con­ser­vat­ive web­site, called on Re­pub­lic­ans to with­hold con­sent on every is­sue that comes be­fore the Sen­ate.

But there are down­sides — namely, that with­hold­ing con­sent plays in­to Re­id’s ef­forts to paint Re­pub­lic­ans as ob­struc­tion­ists. So if tor­pedo­ing all UC re­quests gives Sen­ate Demo­crats an ad­vant­age, there’s little in­cent­ive to pur­sue that course, ar­gue some Re­pub­lic­ans. Plus, the Re­pub­lic­an-con­trolled House en­sures noth­ing un­pal­at­able will get through.

“Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans don’t have to jam up the sys­tem,” said GOP strategist Rick Wilson. “They don’t have to play screw around be­cause the House plays a buf­fer.”

Oth­er in­flu­en­tial con­ser­vat­ives, such as Rush Limbaugh, have sug­ges­ted stig­mat­iz­ing the nom­in­ees con­firmed in the post-nuc­le­ar-op­tion Sen­ate, giv­ing them an air of il­le­git­im­acy.

But there’s little in­dic­a­tion on the Hill — at least, so far — that Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors will ad­opt this ap­proach. A seni­or Sen­ate GOP aide said there has been no ef­fort to mount a con­fer­ence-wide re­sponse and doesn’t ex­pect one for now.

The more likely strategy, say former Sen­ate aides, would be for Mc­Con­nell to pick which bills and nom­in­a­tions to hold up, with the in­ten­tion of ex­tract­ing some cost from Re­id.

“If Harry Re­id is try­ing to push something through at the end of a ses­sion, then now you really have it,” said Mark Strand, pres­id­ent of the Con­gres­sion­al In­sti­tute and a former top aide to former Sen. Jim Tal­ent, R-Mo. “You pun­ish him for something he really wants.”

As for wheth­er that ap­proach plays in­to Re­id’s aim of cast­ing Re­pub­lic­ans as ob­struc­tion­ists, Strand pushed back. “Really you’re try­ing to cre­ate a give-and-take,” he said. “In ex­change for what you want, here’s what we want.”

Plus, that whole ob­struc­tion­ist nar­rat­ive is “already baked in the cake,” said Wilson. “It’s hard for people to hate Con­gress any more than they already do. It’s hard for people to say, ‘God­damn those Re­pub­lic­ans,’ more thor­oughly than they already have.”

Go too far, and Re­pub­lic­ans fear they could be even fur­ther mar­gin­al­ized as the minor­ity party in the up­per cham­ber. From their point of view, Re­pub­lic­ans be­lieve Re­id has demon­strated his will­ing­ness to do whatever it takes to score vic­tor­ies for Demo­crats and the White House.

“Right now, there’s no in­cent­ive for the White House to ne­go­ti­ate with us be­cause Re­id will change the rules,” a former GOP lead­er­ship aide said.

Wheth­er Re­id would ac­tu­ally re­vis­it the nuc­le­ar op­tion on le­gis­la­tion, though, seems un­likely. Get­ting the votes to strip the fili­buster threat from nom­in­ees was dif­fi­cult enough, and Re­id said in an in­ter­view with WAMU this week that he’d leave the de­cision to fu­ture ma­jor­ity lead­ers to de­cide wheth­er to ex­pand simple-ma­jor­ity rule in the Sen­ate.

Demo­crats, for their part, aren’t yet sure how Re­pub­lic­ans will strike back in the next year. “People as­sume they’re go­ing to make us burn all the time on de­bat­ing nom­in­ees. As far as how their frus­tra­tion will mani­fest it­self on the le­gis­lat­ive cal­en­dar, we don’t know yet,” said a Demo­crat­ic lead­er­ship aide. “The ball is in their court.”

What it all really comes down to is con­trol of the Sen­ate. Re­pub­lic­ans ac­know­ledge the only way to get that is to pre­vail against the vul­ner­able Demo­crats up for reelec­tion in 2014. Mes­saging over pro­ced­ur­al rules really isn’t go­ing to work in a place like Louisi­ana, Arkan­sas, or Alaska. And giv­en that Re­id “reigns su­preme” in the Sen­ate, “lit­er­ally the only strategy avail­able to Re­pub­lic­ans is to win in 2014,” said a Sen­ate GOP aide.

If that hap­pens, all bets are off. Mc­Con­nell de­clined to lay out his plan of at­tack after Re­id changed the rules. But Sen. Chuck Grass­ley, R-Iowa, gave some in­dic­a­tion on the Sen­ate floor last week.

Grass­ley said the “sil­ver lin­ing” of the change is that Re­pub­lic­ans will one day be in the ma­jor­ity, and they “will likely” nom­in­ate and con­firm both lower court and Su­preme Court nom­in­ees with 51 votes. The Sen­ate changes last week still left the fili­buster in­tact on nom­in­ees for the highest court in the land.

“There will come a day when we will have the Sen­ate,” Wilson said, “and our ven­geance will be hideous to be­hold.”

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