With a deal to allow votes on five of seven presidential nominees stalled by Republican filibuster threats, the Senate pulled back from the brink. But it is not clear whether the compromise, struck after what amounted to a four-hour group-therapy session in the Old Senate Chamber, is a one-off—or a template for the future. “It buys time,” says former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle. “It’s not a permanent solution. We’re going to run into these challenges continuously. I give great credit to John McCain. He stepped into the void.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s threat to change Senate rules, the so-called nuclear option that would allow a simple majority to confirm executive appointments, rattled members in both parties, and bringing almost all 100 senators into the historic chamber Monday night had the intended sobering effect. The space is small, there was no C-Span camera, and the forced intimacy made them confront each other and their forebears. This is where Henry Clay sat when he drafted the Missouri Compromise, and no senator is immune to the romance of history and his or her place in it.
“At the end of the day, the love for the institution breaks through,” says former Republican representative Steve LaTourette. “But I wouldn’t look for anything like ‘Kumbaya.’”
Indeed, the backstage maneuvering is more like Breaking Bad. It’s where the real story lies, and where it gets personal. After an unusually sharp exchange on the Senate floor last week, Republican leader Mitch McConnell’s campaign sent out an email with a tombstone along with the words McConnell had used to describe Reid, “world’s worst majority leader.” That stung, and when McConnell approached Reid late Monday to strike a deal, he was rebuffed.
Reid chose to negotiate with McCain, and the resulting deal is not with McConnell but around McConnell—and nobody can say what that bodes for the future. McCain is the man of the hour, but there are 16 months to go before the midterm elections, and big budget fights ahead. “He’s [McConnell] weakened in terms of his perception as leader,” says Daschle, but the minority leader may not mind letting McCain do the caving in with the Democrats. “It helps him at home and hurts him in Washington.”
Until now, McConnell’s goal had been to “watch his right flank to make sure he doesn’t get Tea Partied,” says Jim Manley, Reid’s former spokesman. “Now the pressure is on to manage the tensions in his caucus. He’s got Senator McCain running around him trying to cut deals, and 17 Republicans made it clear they’ve had enough of obstructionism.”
Seventeen Republicans joined Democrats for a strong 71 votes to let the nomination proceed for Richard Cordray as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, defying the obstructionism that has become the hallmark of McConnell’s leadership. Praising McCain’s “advocacy, persuasiveness, and persistence,” Reid said in an emotional statement that McCain is the reason the two parties reached an accommodation. “No one was able to break through except for him,” Reid said, noticeably excluding McConnell from any credit for the breakthrough.
Republicans have pushed every procedural edge as a minority, undermining the basic trust and comity of the institution. In the six years Reid has been leader, he has faced more than 400 filibusters. Lyndon Johnson served as leader the same amount of time and faced a single filibuster, and it was on the great issue of the era, civil rights. Republicans throw up procedural obstacles just to gum up the works and run out the clock. From the time of Dwight Eisenhower until Gerald Ford, there were 20 filibusters of presidential nominations—and 16 of them occurred under President Obama, including unprecedented filibusters of a defense secretary and CIA chief, domains where a president’s choice traditionally prevails.
Obama said he thought the “fever would break” after he won reelection. Instead Republicans doubled down, bottling up Cordray because they don’t like the agency he heads and harassing EPA nominee Gina McCarthy with more than a thousand questions because they don’t like Obama’s policy on curbing emissions from coal-fired plants. Unable to defeat Obama at the ballot box, they worked to undermine his administration in ways that to veterans of Washington seem beyond the norms.
Former longtime Senate staffers who worked across the aisle for decades when their party was in control, and when it wasn’t, say they are appalled at the “party first” attitude that has prevailed under McConnell. “I don’t remember in my entire career a party sabotaging an entire administration on everything,” says one former high-level staffer. Privately and never for attribution, some even have floated the term "civil treason" to describe the level of opposition.
Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin said on the Senate floor Monday that Republicans were trying to “nullify” laws already on the books—notably the consumer agency, but he could have added Obamacare as well. “It’s nullification when they say, ‘We’re going to decide which nominees we accept, which laws we will fund or repeal, and not confirm somebody when we disagree with the law,’” says Daschle. “We’ve never seen anything like this in our lifetime.”
But Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, cautions against such loaded language, saying “ruthless partisan obstruction” is more on target. “Clearly GOP is trying to use procedures to achieve the policy objectives the presidential election didn’t help them do,” he said in an email.
Whatever it’s called, the voters don’t like it, and they blame Republicans most for the gridlock that defines Washington. Maybe that message got through to the GOP this week. Thank you, John McCain.