“The filibuster is not a scheme, and it certainly isn't new. The filibuster is far from a procedural gimmick. It's part of the fabric of this institution we call the Senate.”
-- Floor speech from then Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid; May 18, 2005.
All eyes are on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid today as he gets ready to meet with his fellow Democrats to talk about whether to employ the much-vaunted “nuclear option.” But the man who has the most to say on the subject is Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Only self-regarding Washington would be so arrogant as to compare a change in Senate rules to an atomic holocaust, but in terms of how that body functions it’s not too far off. Republicans were the first to seriously consider the move of using a simple majority vote to scuttle the 60-vote threshold for confirming nominees. Lawmakers have toyed with the idea for decades, but things only got serious in 2005.
Republicans of the Bush era opted against it for fear that the fallout would be too great. The oft-stated warnings from Democrats (notably including then-Sen. Barack Obama) was that by reducing the power of the minority, Majority Leader Bill Frist and the red team would be setting a dangerous standard. The implicit warning, though, was that payback would be hell.
Despite a nominee blockade worse than the one the current minority now imposes, Frist yielded and let the old rules stand. Populating the left-leaning federal bench with Scaliaites was not as appealing to Republicans as preserving the power of the minority, a status soon to be imposed on the GOP by voters.
But having even considered it opened Pandora’s box. The Senate, in Democratic control now for six years and with a Democratic presiding officer in Vice President Joe Biden since 2009 (he’s the one who would technically change the rule), is very much on the nuclear brink. A standoff during President Obama’s first term ended in a deal to limit the use of the filibuster in exchange for readier access to amendments, placating liberals who believe that the sclerotic Senate is preventing Obama not only from populating the executive branch but also applying maximal pressure on the Republican House.
However unpopular the filibuster may be among liberal hardliners, though, neither Reid nor perhaps even a majority of his conference was interested in turning the Senate into the House. A one-time procedural end-around to get Obama’s 2010 health law into the end zone was one thing, making the chamber permanently radioactive was another.
Just think, had Reid done what the left wanted and nuked the rules there is little chance that the Senate would have passed the bipartisan immigration bill they’re now clamoring for. They might have passed an amnesty pipe dream that fulfilled the fantasies of the Democratic base, but they would have zero leverage on the House with anything drafted by liberal diehards and passed with 51 votes. A nuclearized Senate in an era of a divided Congress would be mostly irrelevant, as the House already is.
The pressure on Reid this time, though, is more specific and more urgent. While Republicans have relaxed their grip on the president’s nominees and allowed Obama to fill many judicial vacancies and push through highly controversial cabinet picks, there is one place where the nomination battle still rages: the National Labor Relations Board.
A nuclearized Senate in an era of a divided Congress would be mostly irrelevant, as the House already is.
Judicial vacancies rankle liberals, as does having an “acting” director instead of a confirmed one at the EPA, but the NLRB is huge for the most important constituency in the Democratic Party: organized labor. Government worker unions have kept the labor movement on life support, but in the private sector, unions are approaching the vanishing point. To reverse that trend, unions want more liberal organizing rules and permissive standards for elections. We saw a snapshot with the Boeing plant in South Carolina, but Big Labor wants that to be the new norm for the whole country: an activist, liberal board that helps unions beat management.
Obama attempted to just put his picks on the board by declaring them recess appointments, even though Congress wasn’t in recess, but got swatted down by an appellate court. That means that the board will be totally vacant as of Aug. 28 when the term of Obama’s last appointee expires. And that means, much like when Democrats blockaded Gorge W. Bush’s appointees to the Federal Elections Commission, the board would simply cease to function.
Now that’s just fine with McConnell and most Republicans, who know that nothing the board does will make business happy. So nothing really is better than something. And in Washington, the side that likes the status quo the most usually has the upper hand.
But Reid owes Big Labor a lot. Not just for his 2010 re-election where organized labor beat the bushes for what once looked to be an improbable victory, but for all of the races in which labor will play a key role in 2014. Unions, and Sharron Angle, helped keep Reid in the Senate. Now he needs them to keep him in the majority.
What Reid really needs, then, is a deal with McConnell to fill the vacancies. If he does that, then Reid can turn back the nuclear clock and get on to hammering out a budget deal. McConnell, though, remains vulnerable to a primary challenge in his own election and certainly needs big bucks to win another term. It would be doom for McConnell to try to put together a deal deemed too squishy or too labor-friendly. He is therefore not in a conciliatory mood.
So what does McConnell want in exchange for helping Reid out of this jam? Who knows. But the asking price goes up every time liberals and labor pound the table.
And Now, A Word From Charles
“It has no such authority. It's clearly lawless. It's undoubtedly unconstitutional. The Constitution is a fairly basic tenant in that the executive is required to faithfully execute the law, not to faithfully ignore the parts of the laws it doesn't like… You do that in Bolivia. You don't do that in the United States.”
-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier”
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET at http:live.foxnews.com.
Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as digital politics editor based in Washington, D.C. Additionally, he authors the daily "Fox News First” political news note and hosts “Power Play,” a feature video series, on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on the network, including "The Kelly File," "Special Report with Bret Baier," and "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace.” He also provides expert political analysis for Fox News coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.