In the Aftermath of a Post-Nuclear Senate, Everyone’s Dug in Deeper

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 21: Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) talks with reporters after stepping off the Senate floor at the U.S. Capitol November 21, 2013 in Washington, DC. The Senate voted 52-48 to invoke the so-called 'nuclear option', voting to change Senate rules on the controversial filibuster for most presidential nominations with a simple majority vote.
National Journal
Elahe Izadi and Michael Catalini
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Elahe Izadi Michael Catalini
Nov. 21, 2013, 3:24 p.m.

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.”

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