The main justification put forward by Democrats defending their decision to blow up the Senate rules and end filibusters on Cabinet and judicial nominations is that things are so bad now, they can’t get worse. That’s the spin President Obama put on the situation yesterday as he took a rare turn in the White House press room to spike the football after Majority Leader Harry Reid pushed through the measure he hopes will allow him to pack the federal courts with liberals. This idea is integral to the president’s argument that Republican obstructionism has made it impossible for him to govern. Even on topics where Republican input has been nil such as the ObamaCare rollout, Democrats have stuck to this theme blaming Republicans for stirring up dissent against their unpopular dysfunctional legislation even as most Americans have focused on the president’s broken promises and a dysfunctional website.
There’s no denying that partisanship is nastier in Congress than it once was. But if President Obama and Reid think it can’t get worse, they’re kidding themselves. For all of the bitter combat that has been carried on in just the last year over the budget, ObamaCare, the shutdown, and the various administration scandals, the business of government has largely proceeded unhindered. Many nominations have been approved, bipartisan legislation passed, and the unanimous consent to keep the upper body functioning has almost always been there. But now that Reed has pushed the plunger on the so-called nuclear option, all bets are off. The 45 Senate Republicans may no longer have the power to block the president’s appointments on their own, but Senate procedures still give them plenty of latitude to put holds on legislation. Not only will Reed find it even harder to do his job now that he has broken faith with his opponents and sought to squelch dissent, he and the president may also discover that the benefits of their decision will not be as great as they think.
On the surface, it would seem that the president now has carte blanche to do what he has longed to accomplish since moving into the White House: fundamentally alter the balance of the federal courts by packing federal district and appeals courts with the kind of hard-core ideological liberals that were being blocked by filibusters. He may well attempt to do that in the coming 12 months before the midterm elections give the GOP an opportunity to win back the Senate. But those who assume this will now become as easy as pie have forgotten about what will be uppermost on the minds of the several red-state Democrats who face uphill reelection fights next year.
As Josh Gerstein points out in Politico, the roster of potential liberal judges is filled by the ranks of left-wing jurists and lawyers that had little chance of getting the 60 votes they needed under the old rules. But getting to 51 votes may not be so easy for these liberals when you consider that many of the Democrats the president is counting on won’t want to hand their Republican opponents new talking points by rubber-stamping ideological judges. While some may get through, any controversial nominee will find themselves being thrown under the bus by moderate Democrats who can no longer count on the GOP or the filibuster rules to save them from a vote they’d rather not take.
But that’s just the most obvious fallout from Reed’s move. Just as important is the way the rules change will now make it impossible for bipartisan coalitions to be assembled. The Senate has become more like the House in recent years as firebrand newcomers on both sides of the aisle have replaced old warhorses. But as we saw with immigration reform this year, for all the bitterness in D.C., enough conservatives and liberals were still able to work together to get a bill passed in the Senate. But after the president’s scorched-earth approach to the shutdown and the nuclear option being employed, you can forget about anything like that happening again in the foreseeable future. This will alter the nature of the Senate far more than anything we have seen before. The Tea Party had made it tough for Republicans to work with Democrats in the last three years. But the president has now ensured that even those inclined to ignore them will also refuse to play ball.
The Democrats’ mindset is based on an assumption that when the Republicans got control of the Senate again, whether in 2015 or at some later date, they would have employed the nuclear option as they threatened to do first in 2005 when Democrats were defending the filibuster. At this point, there’s no longer any way of knowing whether that would have happened even if the Democrats hadn’t struck first. Up until this point, it’s doubtful that we’ve ever had a Senate majority leader so incapable of working with the minority as Reid has shown himself to be. Perhaps Mitch McConnell or his successor would have wound up doing the same, but since the Republicans always backed away from pushing the button on the filibuster that question is now in the realm of counter-factual fiction, not serious analysis. But what we do know now is that it is highly unlikely that the GOP will refrain from playing just as rough in the future when it is their turn to control the Senate.
That’s why Democrats do well to avoid celebrations of their move. The benefits from it to President Obama will be minimal. But the costs in terms of dysfunction and the certainty of even worse political warfare to come are considerable.