Senate Republicans still smarting from a Democratic rules change that diminished their power to block President Obama's appointees are vowing retribution against the majority when lawmakers return to work in January.
The GOP in the final weeks of the 2013 session provided a glimpse into what that might mean in 2014. Unable to block most presidential nominees because of the Democratic rule change, Republicans are using their remaining authority to slow the Senate to a crawl, delaying action on routine matters that typically pass uncontested.
Senate Democrats changed the rules to limit Republicans' use of the filibuster to block most presidential nominees for administration jobs and the judiciary. Only Supreme Court nominees are still subject to the filibuster.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who with other Democrats complained that Republicans were abusing the filibuster, changed chamber rules so that only a simple majority of 51 votes is needed to advance a nominee instead of the previous 60. Republicans took umbrage, particularly because Reid initiated the change through use of the so-called "nuclear option" and sidestepped Senate rules requiring 67 votes to alter a parliamentary rule, doing so instead with a bare majority of Democrats.
The change virtually guarantees that Democrats, who now control 55 votes, can push through virtually any nominee without regard to Republican objections. Since the rule change, Reid has pushed through several judicial and administrative nominees without regard to Republican objections.
Justified or not, Republicans are seething.
“It's a tragedy the way the Senate is being run into the ground by basically one person,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said of Reid. “It's going to be hard to get the Senate back to normal.”
Senate Democrats defended the rule change, saying Obama should be allowed to place people of his own choosing in crucial administration posts. They charged that Republican delays of nominees severely strained the judicial system by leaving judgeships vacant.
Democrats said limits on the filibuster were needed so that the Senate could work more efficiently, though it appears that the change is having the opposite affect on the chamber. Angry Republicans are slowing progress on a variety of fronts in retaliation for the change.
Reid acknowledged as much during one of his last floor speeches of 2013.
“With all of the Republican obstruction, delay, we have seen over the last two weeks, is it any wonder Democrats changed the rules last month? Of course not,” Reid said. “Even under these new rules, Republicans are wasting weeks on matters that could be resolved in mere hours.”
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., a staunch advocate of neutering the minority's ability to block executive branch nominees, said the move will pay dividends.
“What I was trying to work toward was a better-functioning Senate and having democracy be the front and center part of that,” Udall told the Washington Examiner. “The rules change is about having a democratic Senate — being able to have majorities accomplish things.”
Even without the flare-up over filibusters, next year promised to be a tough one for Congress.
The 2014 midterm elections will effectively truncate the congressional calendar. And with control of the Senate appearing to be up for grabs, campaign politics is sure to influence deliberations in an already deeply polarized chamber.
At least one Republican senator said the net effect of the rule change may be to further reduce across-the-aisle cooperation. This Republican is working on bipartisan legislation with a Democrat, and said the two of them are trying to figure out how the heightened tensions might affect their ability to move their proposal.
Republicans blame Democrats for new tensions created by the rules change — especially the manner in which Reid pushed it through. Unlike other issues, where senators might dance around intentions to exact political retribution, Republicans are candid about their plans to retaliate over the filibuster.
“If [Reid] decides that because he broke the rules he now wants to use the new rules to jam through a bunch of nominees and try and run over Republicans, obviously we're not going to lay down for that,” said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., chairman of the Republican conference.