For Republicans, “nuclear option” offers political opportunity

Republicans spent the better part of Thursday bemoaning a move by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to change the Senate rules in a procedure known as the “nuclear option.”

But in reality, what happened was a political victory for Republicans who will likely point to this day as evidence that the Democrats are disregarding the Constitution. For no one is that more true than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who is up for re-election next year and is battling both a primary and general election opponent. 

After Republicans blocked three of the president’s nominees to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., to run the Federal Housing Finance Agency, Reid pulled the trigger and called for a vote to change the rules so that the minority party can no longer use a filibuster to block judicial and executive branch nominees, except for those nominated to the Supreme Court.

When McConnell came to talk to reporters after the rules had been officially changed, he didn’t talk about the vote that had just occurred. He didn’t talk about the long-held traditions of the Senate. He talked about every Republicans’ favorite topic right now: the failed Obamacare launch

“Here’s the problem with this latest distraction: It doesn’t distract people from Obamacare. It reminds them of Obamacare. It reminds them of all the broken promises. It reminds them of the power grab. It reminds them of the way Democrats set up one set of rules for themselves and another for everybody else,” McConnell said. “Rather than distract people from Obamacare, it only reinforces the narrative of a party that is willing to do and say just about anything to get its way.”

In McConnell’s book, one can draw a direct line between Democratic efforts to get the Affordable Care Act through Congress and their decision to change the Senate rules three and a half years later. “And the parallels between this latest skirmish and the original Obamacare push are just too obvious to ignore,” he said.

The minority leader’s remarks Thursday show that the rule change today just offered Republicans another chance to highlight the failures of the health care law. That’s what makes this skirmish over the filibuster so different from all of the other ones that Reid and McConnell have had in recent years, all of which ended in agreements to avoid the nuclear option.  This time, he didn’t seem to be looking for a deal.

“In effect McConnell went nuclear before Reid did,” said Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

“This was a pretty deliberate act on McConnell’s part to bring this about,” Ornstein said. “This time it was very clear that Reid had the votes and also clear that he preferred not to do this, and what you saw was McConnell, [Iowa Sen. Chuck] Grassley and other Republicans almost daily taunting the Democrats to go ahead and do it.”

McConnell believes that Republicans have a shot at winning the Senate back in 2014 and the White House in 2016 – at which point the rules change would benefit them in the majority, and they could place the blame on Democrats for carrying it out.

It also helps McConnell with the base of the Republican Party back home in Kentucky, who will be instrumental in ensuring his re-election. They may not be thrilled with the minority leader for the role he played in striking a deal to end the 16-day government shutdown in October, but this could help voters to see him as “fighting the crazy Democrats who are shedding the Constitution,” Ornstein said.

He predicted that Republican media outlets, already running on overtime to cover problems with the launch of HealthCare.gov, will quickly link it to the end of the filibuster for certain nominees.

For evidence that preserving the filibuster is not some deeply-held conviction for the Republican leader, look no further than 2005, the last battle over the procedural took that occurred while Democrats were in the minority. Reid in 2005 could easily be mistaken for McConnell in 2013, and vice versa.

“The majority in the Senate is prepared to restore the Senate’s traditions and precedence to ensure that regardless of party, any president’s judicial nominees, after full and fair debate, receive a simple up-or-down vote on the Senate floor,” McConnell said in 2005, when he was the Senate Majority Whip. He added that the Senate needed to return from “advise and obstruct” and return to “advise and consent.”

Compare that to Reid’s remarks on the floor Thursday, where he said, “The consistent and unprecedented obstruction by the Republican caucus has turned ‘advise and consent’ to ‘deny and obstruct’.”

Reid was also on the opposite side of the debate in 2005. When Republicans threatened to change the rules then, he said, “This is an attempt to strip away those important checks and balances. It's not about judges. It's about the desire for absolute power.”

Even President Obama and Vice President Biden, who supported Reid on Thursday, protested McConnell’s attempts to change the rules in 2005.

“The nuclear option abandons America’s sense of fair play….“I say to my friends on the Republican side, you may own the field right now, but you won’t own it forever,” Biden said. “I pray God, when the Democrats take back control, we don’t make the kind of naked power grab you are doing.”

Mr. Obama, then a senator, said, "If the majority chooses to end the filibuster, if they choose to change the rules and put an end to democratic debate, then the fighting and the gridlock and the bitterness will only get worse." 

When the trigger was finally pulled in 2013, Mr. Obama got his judicial nominees. McConnell got a political weapon. But life will be hard for Democrats running for re-election in red states who are already in a tough spot defending the health care law.

Two of them, Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., who's up for re-election in heavily Republican Arkansas next year, and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., voted with Republicans to prevent the rule change.

“Today’s use of the ‘nuclear option’ could permanently damage the Senate and have negative ramifications for the American people,” Pryor said. “This institution was designed to protect—not stamp out—the voices of the minority.”

“ I voted against the rules changes today because they simply went too far. I firmly believe that the filibuster is a vital protection of the minority views and exactly why the Framers of our Constitution made the Senate the ‘cooling saucer,’” Manchin said.

  • Rebecca Kaplan On Twitter»

    Rebecca Kaplan covers the 2012 presidential campaign for CBS News and National Journal.

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