Why the nuclear option wouldn’t have been apocalyptic

[Headline updated to reflect the fact that a deal was reached to avert filibuster reform. The rest of this post was written before that happened.]

It’s becoming increasingly clear that Harry Reid is ready to exercise the “nuclear option” to force filibuster reform:

In a Monday speech at the Center for American Progress, the Senate majority leader announced his readiness to invoke the so-called nuclear option and push through filibuster reform on a procedural vote.

Reid, citing the refusal of Senate Republicans to allow up-or-down votes on seven of the president’s nominees, including Tom Perez to be secretary of Labor and Gina McCarthy to be administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said, “The Senate is broken and needs to be fixed,” and emphasized “I am prepared to take whatever actions necessary” to do so.

As the Senate inches to within reach of DEFCON 0, Reid seems to have discounted the risk that the schtick he’s about to pull will come back to bite him and other Senate Democrats in the ass [pun intended]:

“I’d actually look at what’s going on today rather than have some hypothetical in the future.”

I suppose bluffing is a good negotiating tactic, but that future — Nate Silver felt compelled to chime in — might be coming sooner than Reid would like. Yesterday, the Sultan of Stat took to Five Thirty Eight for the first time in five days to predict that control of the Senate after 2014 (the coming election) looks like a tossup:

A race-by-race analysis of the Senate, in fact, suggests that Republicans might now be close to even-money to win control of the chamber after next year’s elections. Our best guess, after assigning probabilities of the likelihood of a G.O.P. pickup in each state, is that Republicans will end up with somewhere between 50 and 51 Senate seats after 2014, putting them right on the threshold of a majority.

The post didn’t explicitly mention the nuclear option or filibuster reform, or anything else about the current Senate, but the implication was clear: Reid should be careful what he wishes for.

That said, I’m not so sure that conclusion is correct. On the one hand, Silver doesn’t predict that Republicans will take the Senate in 2014, and the smaller the Democratic majority, the more important will be its ability to break the filibuster. But his post also serves as an obvious reminder that in changing the rules, the Democrats risk ceding power to an inevitable Republican majority — if not in 2014, then sometime soon thereafter. And that’s precisely what Republicans are counting on to call Reid’s bluff (and continue blocking executive branch nominees). Said Lamar Alexander (R-TN):

“It might be a Democratic train going through the Senate now, but a year and a half from now, it might be the tea party express and some of them might not like that.”

Incorrect, Mr. Alexander: all of them will not like that. Still, Alexander makes a terrifyingly good point about control of the Senate, and it’s certainly something that should give Reid pause before he reaches for that big red button.

But I want to focus on something else Alexander said that actually undermines this line of argument:

“There are too many senators who don’t understand the danger of the precedent of a Senate that can change the [rules] any time it wants to do anything it wants to.”

It’s that darn “can”: the real risk of Reid’s maneuvering is not that he will change the rules — the risk comes from having simply demonstrated that he can. At this point, whether he succeeds in roping 50 other Senators along with him is immaterial, because the road map has already been sketched out. We now live in a world of Senatorial nuclear brinkmanship — and we’ve actually been living in it for some time.

Even if the Senate manages to reach some compromise today to avoid nuclear conflict, it’s not like Republicans will be above invoking it in the future: Republican Vice President Richard Nixon invented the damn thing in 1957, Republican Senator Trent Lott (R-MS) named it “nuclear”, and Republican majority leader Bill Frist (R-TN [like Lamar]) invoked it as recently as 2005 in an effort to force Democrats to confirm judicial nominees.

So unless Reid pulls an abrupt about-face and agrees to actual disarmament (by changing Senate rules so as to actually preclude the threat of the nuclear option in the future), the option will always be on the table — and used as a negotiating tactic.


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