Senate Republicans Fearful of Post-Nuclear Senate

by Jonathan Strong

Appearing shell-shocked by the Harry Reid’s abrupt move to pass the “nuclear option” through the Senate, Republicans there issued ominous warnings to reporters outside the chamber.

“When you start, it’s like wars — there’s no end to this. I don’t know where it goes,” says Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

“In my view this is the most important and most dangerous restructuring of Senate rules since Thomas Jefferson wrote them at the beginning of our country,” Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee says.

Democrats have been open about wanting the change so President Obama’s regulations, executive actions and other unilateral decisions enjoy a more favorable audience at the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Generally speaking, the D.C. Circuit is like a mini-Supreme Court for administrative law, giving it far-reaching impact on what Obama can do without the full control of Congress.

Republicans also feel the timing is suspect. “I think this is a political ploy, a distraction, to take minds away from Obamacare,” Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas, the National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman, tells me.

“In order to distract attention away from Obamacare the Senate has just broken the rules in order to change the rules,” minority leader Mitch McConnell said at a press conference.

Graham says the rules change – which allows judges and executive nominations to be approved by majority vote, rather than a 60-vote supermajority – will “change the flavor of the judiciary.”

“I know the pressures that exist to pick people that are more pure in their ideology than maybe they are in administering justice,” Graham says, adding the President Obama and future presidents won’t have any structural reason not to appoint such justices.

One big outstanding question is whether Republicans will follow the new rules, change them back, or push their power further if they retake the majority – now that the precedent has been set by Reid.

Questioned repeatedly in the press conference, McConnell wouldn’t show his hand. “I don’t think this is a time to be talking about reprisal. I think it’s a time to be sad about what’s been done to the United States Senate. The greatest deliberative body in the world,” he said.

Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona says he’s afraid that Republicans will be unable to resist using the same power.

“That’s what I fear. I fear that once Republicans get the majority it’s very tough to tell the base that you’re going to diminish your own authority,” he says, adding that he expects Reid to eventually kill the filibuster for legislation as well.

Republicans privately suggest Reid – who repeatedly left public promises behind in the dust on the issue – is trying to avoid being outflanked by young liberal upstarts in his caucus.

Notably, senators from that group were only asking for more in the minutes after the vote.

Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon told reporters he still wants to change the rules on legislation to require 41 Senators to vote to stop debate rather than 61 to invoke cloture, the current procedure. “then the American people can judge whether or not the folks that are slowing down legislation in the Senate are heroes or bums,” he says.

Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut says he came to the Senate to destroy the filibuster and still wants to. “I voted to essentially abolish the filibuster in my second or third vote here. I came to the United States Senate promising that I would oppose the filibuster — on everything. And that’s still my position, even more so now,” he says.