Is nuclear war looming in the Senate?

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There are nuclear arms in the Senate.

For all of its ornate statuary of former Vice Presidents, vaulted, tempura ceilings painted by Constantino Brumidi and depictions of the Moon Landing, the hallways of the United States Senate are basically weaponized.

There are fusion bombs. Fission bombs. All sorts of urnaium-235 and plutonium-239. They’re all loaded onto Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM’s), bombers and rockets. A suitcase nuke or two is probably stowed in the Ohio Clock near the Main Senate door - long incorrectly said to have been the locale where senators stashed hard liquor during Prohibition.

You see, there’s talk again of a nuclear war in the Senate. Senators waged one nuclear conflict last Congress after Senate Democrats unilaterally detonated an atomic weapon.

In November, 2013, then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) executed the so-called “nuclear option.” Democrats were frustrated that then-minority Republicans jammed up the works when it came to confirming President Obama’s executive branch nominations. Actual confirmation votes require a mere simple majority of 51 for such nominations. But breaking a filibuster entailed a supermajority of 60. Reid finally had enough. He dropped a nuclear bomb, reducing the threshold to overcome a filibuster to just 51 yeas.

It is sometimes reported that Reid changed the Senate rules. He did not. The Senate is a body which functions on a set of standing rules – but also precedent. Reid was able to set a new precedent in the Senate for those types of filibusters, not a full-blown rules change which requires a two-thirds.

Regardless of what it’s called, Republicans were apoplectic at Reid’s move. Such filibusters – as onerous as they may seem to the majority – were the quintessence of the Senate. It is the province of the minority in the Senate to elongate and delay proceedings. It can be a stall tactic. It can be an effort to completely derail a bill or a nomination. The GOP viewed the execution of such a brazen play by the majority nothing short of tyrannical.

After Reid’s gambit, the Senate settled into “nuclear winter” for most of 2014. There’s was fallout. And barely anything happened.

When Republicans seized control of the Senate, new Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) asserted his side would evaluate the nuclear option precedent. The Kentucky Republican got pressure from Republicans on both sides of the nuclear option debate. Some suggested that if McConnell was true to his word, he’d return the Senate to its practices before Reid’s scheme. Others suggested the GOP should take advantage of the new policy. They’d delight in turning the trick back around on Democrats should the next occupant of the White House be a Republican.

But so far, the nuclear option precedent has remained. Supreme Court nominees still require 60 votes to clear a potential filibuster. Most other garden variety nominees need just 51.

And significantly, most pieces of legislation and non-budgetary resolutions must  potentially navigate two rounds of 60 to break filibusters.

That’s where the trouble lies.

Republicans are more than happy to blast Democrats right now for waging a filibuster on a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security – and block President Obama’s immigration executive orders. Several weeks ago, the House easily passed a version of the bill and zapped it over to the Senate. But the Senate has taken three procedural votes just to bring that legislation to the floor for debate – failing every time. Democrats successfully filibustered debate on the bill because they oppose the immigration executive order provisions. If Republicans can cobble together 60 votes, they can overcome the filibuster to launch debate on the bill. But the GOP is stymied until then. McConnell is scheduling a fourth procedural vote to try to break the filibuster for Monday night.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) is insistent his body won’t (and probably can’t) send the Senate a revamped bill more to the Democrats’ liking. And until something gives there’s a standoff afoot. The Department of Homeland Security is due to run out of money February 27th.

That’s where the nuclear weapons come in.

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) and others are calling on McConnell to rip a page from Harry Reid’s playbook and upend Senate precedent. Reid confined the November, 2013 nuclear option to just filibusters for most administration nominees. Brooks suggests the Kentucky Republican should introduce a new precedent, entailing only 51 votes to break both rounds of filibusters available to senators on most bills. No longer would it mandate 60 votes just to bring a bill to the floor if a filibuster at work. And no longer would it take 60 votes to cut off debate on a bill and advance to final passage.

If McConnell follows the House GOPers suggestion, that would suddenly mute the rights of the Senate minority. It would fundamentally change the nature of the Senate. Such an effort would prove historic, dramatically converting the Senate into an institution not dissimilar from the House where the majority enjoys outright rule.

Think it can’t happen? Few thought Reid would put his finger on the nuclear button 16 months ago.

So far, even the likes of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) have spoken against altering the filibuster precedent. And again, it’s one thing to change Senate precedent at one stage on one particular type of filibuster. It’s absolutely  radical to morph the Senate into something it’s never been in its nearly 250-year history.

The Senate isn’t a radical place and is slow to change.

It’s possible this idea could gain steam. It might not fully blossom over the current contretemps regarding DHS funding. But wait to see what happens when there’s trouble later this year raising the debt ceiling? How about when there’s a stalemate over paying for the transportation trust fund later in May? Or what on the so-called “doc fix” (one of the most-toxic votes in Congress these days, as lawmakers cough up more cash annually to prevent physicians from halting the treatment of Medicare patients)? Maybe when it comes down to avoiding a government shutdown this fall?

It’s quite possible we’re seeing the prologue of a series of fights which could paralyze Washington over the next two years. House Republicans adopt something with some riders which are intolerable to Democrats - but the measure passes anyway because the House Democrats can’t do anything besides vote no and don’t have the numbers to derail the legislation. They kick the bill over to the Senate where Democrats there find those provisions just as objectionable – be they on Obamacare, the EPA, minimum wage or immigration – and watch Senate Democrats filibuster.

Everything screeches to a standstill. And then this same drama is repeated over and over and over again.

Think the nuclear option 2.0 won’t be ripe then?

Keep in mind this is more than just another version of Reid’s nuclear option. This is full-blown, thermonuclear warfare. This is Washington and Moscow lobbing volleys of missiles at each other during the most chilly days of the Cold War. This is Kennedy and Khrushchev. Red phones ringing off the hook.

This is the Senate’s version of Armageddon.

Let’s see where this goes after a few bloody bouts, a few more “cliffs” and a shutdown or two. Boehner won’t be able to simply absolve himself each time. McConnell will have to demonstrate there’s a reason Republicans now have control of the Senate now and are forced to govern. Senate Republicans must have something to show for their majority – even if it’s the Democrats jamming the Senate gearboxes.

So for now, the ICBM’s are on standby in their silos. The nuclear codes are stashed nearby in the “football” with the aide-de-camp. The optical scanners are ready at the Cheyenne Mountain nuclear bunker to certify who’s entering the facility. Everyone’s prepared to certify who’s giving the launch codes: Alpha. Alpha. Foxtrot. Tango. Zulu.

For now, this is only a drill.

But at some point in the very near future, it might not be.