Exasperated with repeated Republican stonewalling of President Obama's executive and judicial nominees, Senate Democrats on Thursday went nuclear, striking down two centuries of precedent regarding the chamber's arcane filibuster rules.
By a 52-48 vote, the Senate voted to allow confirmation of federal judge and Cabinet nominees with a simple majority vote. The move did not, however, change the filibuster rules regarding legislation and Supreme Court nominees.
For Republicans, it was the latest defeat to come as a result of the party's refusal to engage with their Democratic colleagues on even minor issues. The GOP has earned a reputation under Obama as the "party of no" for its intransigence, which in recent months has proven self-defeating more than once.
Take the filibuster.
For a full year, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) threatened the nuclear option to circumvent Republican inaction. Most recently, Republicans blocked three nominees to the powerful U.S. District Court of Appeals, not because of any qualms with the candidates' credentials, but merely because they didn't want Obama filling vacancies on an influential court that tilts conservative.
With the GOP refusing to back down, Reid finally dropped the bomb, ensuring Obama's nominees could get an up-or-down vote — and, as a bonus, handing liberals a procedural reform they've long sought.
"The American people believe the Senate is broken," Reid said on the Senate floor Thursday, "and I believe the American people are right."
Outraged Republicans vowed retribution, saying they would use the process to stack future courts in their favor once they're back in control. Except to do that, they would need to first retake the Senate and White House, which may not be so easy by 2016.
In the meantime, Democrats have a little extra muscle to help Obama staff his administration as he sees fit (which, let's remember, used to be common practice). That could be immensely important, since House Republicans have shown no interest in dealing with the president on anything substantive like immigration reform.
As New York's Jonathan Chait detailed more thoroughly here, "Obama has no real legislative agenda that can pass Congress," so his "second-term agenda runs not through Congress but through his own administrative agencies."
With the filibuster tweak, Obama can now more readily advance his administrative agenda — and Republicans allowed that to happen by forcing Reid's hand on the filibuster. At that point, he didn't have much choice: Had he set the precedent of allowing the minority party to prevent judicial vacancies from being filled, Republicans would only have been encouraged to do it again.
"Eventually this escalation would have become untenable," wrote Salon's Brian Beutler, "and somebody would have had to go nuclear."
That's the same argument Democrats made during the government shutdown, another instance of GOP obstinacy backfiring spectacularly. Had Democrats and President Obama acceded to the GOP's hostage-taking, it would have established a precedent that government shutdowns and threats of debt default were the norm for legislative negotiations.
And by letting Republicans dig in, Democrats reaped the political benefits of seeing the GOP's approval ratings tank.
The same dynamic could soon play out on health care, too.
ObamaCare face-planted out of the gate, and Republicans have rightly criticized the administration's extensive failings in implementing it. However, the GOP has yet to offer a credible alternative health-care plan. The party's playbook for winning the PR battle over the law, outlined Thursday by the New York Times, is heavy on strategy but light on substance.
"Rather than get out of Obama's path of self-destruction and focus energy on creating and promoting a positive, forward-looking health-care agenda" wrote National Journal's Ron Fournier, "the GOP has chosen to cement its reputation as the obstructionist party."
Republicans will keep stepping on rakes if they opt merely for "no" instead of "no, but instead." And with ObamaCare possibly set to make something of a comeback in the coming weeks, the clock is ticking.
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