Today is the day that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has threatened to press the button on a plan which would kill the filibuster of presidential appointees. It’s been called the “nuclear option,” and it would ban the Senate minority’s practice of holding up nominees like those President Obama attempted to foist on the National Labor Relations Board.
Reid reiterated Monday morning that he could trigger the so-called nuclear option as early as Tuesday if Republicans do not agree to give up-or-down votes to seven of President Obama’s pending nominees.
By going nuclear, Reid would change the Senate’s rules to allow the nominees to be confirmed with a simple-majority vote. The rule change would prevent the minority from filibustering nominations, which requires the majority to win 60 votes to get a nominee confirmed.
If Reid takes the controversial step, Republicans warn they will retaliate by enacting future rules changes that would allow the repeal of ObamaCare or other Democratic priorities with a majority Senate vote if they regain power.
What’s precipitating this fight is that Senate Republicans are blocking a vote on Richard Cordray, the president’s nominee to head the Consumer Protection Bureau, an office created by the disastrous Dodd-Frank financial regulations. They want reforms made to the CPB. The Republicans are also blocking Senate votes on Richard Griffin, Jr. and Sharon Block, who are nominees to the National Labor Relations Board who were illegally installed on that board during “recess” appointments when Congress wasn’t actually in recess.
The NLRB issue is a big deal, because since those faux-recess appointments made its composition unconstitutional, all of its actions as currently composed are also unconstitutional, and several of those were highly controversial and damaging to the business community. Naturally, they’re in court. And if the Senate can “legitimize” Griffin and Block, it will send a signal to the plaintiffs in those court cases that even if they win and the NLRB’s decisions are thrown out, they’ll merely be reinstated by a legally-constituted board.
Reid is getting a lot of pressure to make this happen before the court cases get too far along and Obama administration policy is undone. Obviously, the judgement has been made that salvaging the NLRB is more important than what might happen should the Democrats lose the Senate – and the filibuster along with it.
But the thing is, unless the GOP does what it’s done in the last two electoral cycles and nominates a bunch of tone-deaf clowns as Senate candidates next year, they’re very likely to take the Senate back.
Note that this isn’t a prediction. We’ve expected a Republican takeover in both 2010 and 2012, and the opportunity has been there to get one in both cycles only to collapse on the basis of horrendous campaigns run by terrible candidates.
Some of those candidates were Tea Partiers like Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle. Some of them were self-funding nightmares like Linda McMahon and Carly Fiorina. A lot more of them were establishment snoozers like Rick Berg, George Allen, Tommy Thompson and Connie Mack. And some of them were decent candidates like Ken Buck, Joe Miller and Richard Mourdock whose campaigns were doomed by circumstances.
Assuming – for the sake of argument only – that the party has learned something from all these missed opportunities, picking up six Senate seats (as of today the number is actually only five, but the 46th GOP seat is the one in New Jersey held by a placeholder who will lose the seat in the fall) is really not all that difficult.
First, Republicans are defending 14 seats if you don’t count the one in New Jersey. Of those, the only one which is in a blue state is Susan Collins in Maine. Collins is a consistent winner there and isn’t likely to lose next year. Democrats think they have a chance to pick up Mitch McConnell’s seat in Kentucky, but their candidate has gotten off to a comically disastrous start and it’s unlikely he’ll lose. What’s a tiny bit more likely is a Dem pickup of Saxby Chambliss’ seat in Georgia, but there is no particularly strong Democrat candidate there and the Dems just don’t have the statewide numbers. The Republican nominee figures to be a lot more conservative than Chambliss was and should win a fairly close race if a decent Democrat emerges or a blowout if one doesn’t.
But on the Democrat side, 20 seats are up for a challenge next year. And of those 20, the Dems don’t have incumbents in five thanks to the retirements of Tom Harkin, Max Baucus, Carl Levin, Jay Rockefeller and Tim Johnson.
Rockefeller’s West Virginia seat and Johnson’s South Dakota seat have been all but conceded to the GOP, as those states have a relatively deep red hue of late. Now that Montana’s Democrat governor Brian Schweitzer has opted not to run for Baucus’ seat it’s fairly likely that’s a GOP cinch as well; the only hope the Democrats have is to find a good candidate on a short bench and then get a third-party candidacy they can fund to siphon votes away from the Republican, which is how they managed to squeeze Jon Tester back into the Senate in 2012.
Assume those three go to the GOP, and we’re looking at embattled Democrat incumbents in red states to find three pickups to retake the Senate.
We’ve discussed the Bill Cassidy-Mary Landrieu race in detail. Cassidy needs to ramp up his fundraising and build a strong organization, but he’s much better suited to beating Landrieu than any of the three past GOP opponents she’s had, and it should be remembered she’s never gotten more than 52 percent of the vote, Louisiana’s Democrats are in worse shape than at any time since Reconstruction, this is a midterm election in which she won’t have Barack Obama on the ballot to drive black Democrat turnout and she has a bushel of bad votes on her recent record she’ll have to defend.
That’s one tossup race with a Dem incumbent. But Kay Hagans in North Carolina is in similar trouble, though the Republicans haven’t focused on a candidate yet. So is Mark Pryor in Arkansas; Pryor’s fellow Democrat Blanche Lincoln was blown out by 20 points in 2010, and though he’s a more skilled politician than she is he’s also got a very good opponent brewing in Rep. Tom Cotton. And Mark Begich in Alaska is very much in danger of losing his seat, though at this point it will be interesting to see who the Republican nominee will be (Gov. Sean Parnell? Joe Miller? SARAH PALIN?).
Beyond the tossups with Democrat incumbents, Harkin’s Iowa seat and Levin’s Michigan seat are also available. So far neither of those races have uncovered great Republican hopes; Rep. Steve King in Iowa would have been an interesting candidate seeing as though the establishment types think he’s too conservative to win statewide election (and we know how accurate the establishment types are in those assessments), but King has decided not to run – making the GOP field wide open against a fairly strong Democrat in Rep. Bruce Braley. In Michigan, nobody on either side has emerged as a star.
So there are eight very winnable pickup races for the GOP, and really none for the Democrats. 2014 is a midterm election, and Republicans thrive in midterm elections since the midterm electorate is usually a much more conservative electorate without as many low-information voters turning out.
Winning six of those eight races might be a tall order, but given the fraying popularity of a Democrat president, the historical trend of midterm disaster for a second-term (lame duck) president’s party and the effect of the multiple government scandals to come it might not be.
And should the GOP be sitting at 51 or 52 seats in the Senate by January 2015 with Reid having fired his nuclear bullet, there are lots of reforms which could be forced through a Congress with both houses in Republican control. At that point President Obama can exercise a veto to his heart’s content but he’s going to have a lot of trouble when budgets get passed without funding for anything he wants done.
Today’s Republican Party is capable of wasting practically any political opportunity. But that doesn’t mean Reid can’t make a colossal mistake. Going nuclear would be just such a mistake. It would indicate Democrats can be just as dumb as Republicans. And the price – both in policy and in politics – would be awfully steep.
So in the absence of the ability to help themselves, by all means let’s have Harry Reid help Republicans. Go nuclear, Harry.