Every few years brings repeal of another Senate rule protecting the minority party’s rights. In 2013 it was Harry Reid and Democrats nuking the filibuster for presidential nominees for offices other than the Supreme Court. In 2017 McConnell and Republicans took the logical next step of nuking it for SCOTUS nominees too. Today, in order to overcome Democratic delay tactics, Republicans took a new step — reducing the mandatory debate time allotted for nominees from 30 hours to just two, at least for nominees to federal district courts and sub-cabinet executive branch positions.
If Trump wins a second term and has a new batch of cabinet appointments to make circa early 2021, expect Cocaine Mitch and the gang to nuke what remains of that rule too.
We’re building here inevitably towards one party or the other finally committing to full nuclear release and ending the filibuster for legislation, a move that would turn the Senate into a simple-majority institution like the House. I’m sure I’ll be part of the caterwauling on the right when the next Democratic majority in the Senate finally pulls the trigger on that, but in all candor it’s getting harder to see how that too isn’t the proper outcome at this point. The reason for today’s rule change is that partisanship in the Senate has become so acidic that the minority now resorts to delaying confirmations just because it can, to spite the majority and put on a show for their base that they’re doing everything possible to thwart the evil administration. The age of Senate comity is over, assuming it ever existed; the electoral incentives opposing it are too powerful. Might as well trash what’s left of minority rights in the chamber and let the winner of each election take all.
The move exposed raw emotions delivered in highly personal terms between the two sides, particularly an angry exchange between Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).
“He started this whole thing,” McConnell said just before the final vote, glaring at Schumer and blaming him for a decision 18 years ago that was one of many steps toward Wednesday’s actions.
Moments earlier, Schumer accused the GOP leader of wanting to turn the Senate into a “conveyor belt” to approve Trump’s nominees and admonished Republicans for allowing McConnell’s “debasement of the Senate.”
He did in fact start “this whole thing.” Schumer and his colleagues spent the day complaining that McConnell didn’t seem to have a problem with long confirmation delays when he was freezing out Merrick Garland from filling Scalia’s seat, but Tom Cotton reminded him in a very brief floor speech this afternoon who it was that pioneered hardball over judicial nominees.
The vote went 51/48. Contrary to expectations, it wasn’t the centrist duo of Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski who crossed the aisle; evidently they’re fed up with Democratic stonewalling on nominees too. It was Mike Lee who sided with Schumer, stating yesterday, “The Senate’s rules protect the rights of the American people by balancing the competing interests of majorities, minorities and individual senators. They facilitate the compromise and accountability that are essential to the governing of a large, diverse nation. At this unusually divided moment in our history, Americans need the Senate to serve its deliberative function in our constitutional system.” Democrat Brian Schatz reformulated that by asking whether it’s worth trying to preserve the “old Senate” or better to fashion a Senate for “the modern era.” Lee’s colleagues have made their choice — although, really, I’d say that we already have a Senate for “the modern era” and today’s rule change simply acknowledges it. Spite isn’t a good enough reason to hold up the process of filling 130 judicial vacancies, although it’s certainly good partisan politics. The “modern Senate” merely reacted to modern political reality.
Here’s McConnell making the case this afternoon. Members of both sides seem increasingly resigned to the fact that the legislative filibuster is doomed too, although the timetable on that is iffy. It seems unlikely that Democrats will lose their House majority next fall, but they’d need to gain at least three Senate seats (and probably four given the likelihood of Doug Jones losing) plus the White House in order to put them in a position where nuking the filibuster makes sense. Aligning all of those stars by 2020 is ambitious but it’s a cinch that they’ll follow through if they end up in that position, no matter how much gassy blather they wasted today lamenting changing Senate “norms” or whatever. It’s unthinkable that Democrats would squander total control of government and the opportunity to pass big-ticket left-wing agenda items like climate-change legislation, gun control, amnesty, and so forth by allowing a GOP minority to serially filibuster everything on the table for four years. Schumer will squelch their ability to do so and he’ll do it early (citing today’s rule change as part of the justification in the never-ending game of tit-for-tat). The fate of the Democratic agenda will end up in the hands of purple-state members of their own caucus like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who’ll need to decide how much they value their own reelection chances relative to the left’s policy wishlist. Good luck.
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