Harry Reid: How’s about we go a little nuclear up in this Senate?

posted at 4:41 pm on November 7, 2012 by Mary Katharine Ham

I hate to foist him upon you in your time of pain, but alas, one of the biggest winners last night was— against all odds— that Sullen Senate Leader, that Dour Dynamo, Sen. Harrrrrry Reeeeeid! In his press conference today he said he wants to change Senate rules to limit minority rights, but not quite go full nuclear by eliminating the filibuster. More on that in a second.

With late-breaking North Dakota now called an upset for Sen.-elect Heidi Heitkamp (who takes the prize for alliterative name most likely to be used in a children’s book designed to teach children about positive female role models in positions of power) and Nevada for Sen. Dean Heller, Senate Democrats have netted two additional members in their caucus. This, in a year when Democrats were defending 23 seats to Republicans’ 10. Perhaps in the soul-searching Republicans do, they should learn never to write a budget because that seems to work like a charm. I kid. Sort of.

There will now be a record number of women in the Senate — one of them Sen.-elect Deb Fischer of Nebraska who fended off former Sen. Bob Kerrey handily— and the body’s first openly gay senator in Sen.-elect Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin.

Fred Barnes, who followed the Senate races closely, offers a succinct rundown of his take on the problems with 2012′s class of candidates:

What’s their problem? In Senate races, it’s bad candidates: old hacks (Wisconsin), young hacks (Florida), youngsters (Ohio), Tea Party types who can’t talk about abortion sensibly (Missouri, Indiana), retreads (Virginia), lousy campaigners (North Dakota) and Washington veterans (Michigan). Losers all.

And those are just the Senate contests decided yesterday. In 2010, it was similar. Republicans threw away two of their best chances to gain seats, choosing pathetically incapable candidates in Nevada and Delaware. It’s as if they have a political death wish.

I’d probably be more charitable to some of them, but the fact remains that, while the NRCC provided a bright spot on a dark night, the NRSC, not so much. Hence, this brewing fight.

And, now Sen. Reid signals his moves:

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) pledged on Wednesday to change the rules of the Senate so that the minority party has fewer tools to obstruct legislative business.

In his first post-election press conference, the Nevada Democrat said he wouldn’t go so far as to eliminate the filibuster, which requires 60 votes for the chamber to enter and exit the amendment and debate process. But in remarks meant to preview a more combative approach during the next session, he warned Republicans that obstructionism as a tactic won’t be tolerated — or as technically feasible.

“I want to work together, but I also want everyone to also understand, you cannot push us around. We want to work together,” Reid said.

“I do” have plans to change the Senate rules, he added. “I have said so publicly and I continue to feel that way … I think the rules have been abused, and we are going to work to change them. We will not do away with the filibuster, but we will make the senate a more meaningful place. We are going to make it so we can get things done.”

A year and a half ago, when Reid was toying with this idea, I thought it as an unwise gamble given Republican likelihood to take the reins in 2012. Reid takes a similar gamble, and risks some stultifying fights over parliamentary rules for rule-changing in the Senate, if he changes the rules this time around, but given how this year turned out, the cost-benefit analysis may change. Gains for Democrats may be tough in ’14 because Republicans will be defending seats in the deep-red South.

Reid also named some of his priorities for the new Senate, all while putting up his rhetorical dukes. Raising taxes, raising the debt ceiling, immigration reform:

“I’ve been leaning to the right far too much,” he said.

Reid used his podium to pick on what he considers the Republican sins of the past two years.

“I repeat, to have the leader of the Republicans in the Senate say his No. 1 goal is to defeat Obama, and that’s how we legislated out there for two years,” Reid said.

He also half-dared Republicans to try objecting when the country next has to raise the debt ceiling, as it soon will. “If it has to be raised, we’ll raise it,” he said.

But he would make no similarly hard-and-fast promises about the timeline for other legislation, nor would he say what the country could expect to see as a first order of business in the new Congress — past the necessity of addressing the fiscal cliff.

Immigration reform? “It’s very, very high on my list,” Reid said, not committing to a timeline. “The only thing we need to get immigration reform done is a few Republican votes.”

Mercifully, though it made it into the president’s victory speech Tuesday, Reid seems to recognize that climate change legislation is a tough one, saying “I hope we can address it.” Although, knowing the track record of President Obama, this will be priority No. 1 since it’d impose expensive solutions that don’t work on people who don’t want them and who also don’t prioritize the issue.

But even some Democratic Senators are wary of cutting back on minority rights in the Senate, including Sen. Harry Reid circa 2005:

Democrats in the Senate may be in the minority, but we represent millions of American citizens. The nuclear option would deny these Americans their rightful voice in the governance of the nation. Moreover, we will not always be in the minority. The nuclear option would trample on the rights of whichever group of Americans — Republicans or Democrats — happen to be represented by the Senate minority at any given time.

Listen to the words of two of our great Senate Leaders: Former Republican Leader Howard Baker wrote in 1993 that limiting the right to extended debate “would topple one of the pillars of American Democracy: the protection of minority rights from majority rule. The Senate is the only body in the federal government where these minority rights are fully and specifically protected.” And half a century earlier, Democratic Leader and later President Lyndon Johnson said: “In this country, a majority may govern but it does not rule. The genius of our constitutional and representative government is the multitude of safeguards provided to protect minority interests.”

The Senate conducts most of its business by cooperation and consent. The minority provides that consent with the expectation that the courtesies it extends to the majority will be met with respect for minority rights. And no Senate right is more fundamental than the right to debate. Should the majority choose to break the rules that give us that right, the majority should not expect to receive cooperation from the minority in the conduct of Senate business.

Of course Democrats would never block legislation vital to our troops or other national security interests, and we will help ensure that critical government services continue to function for the American people. Beyond that very limited scope, however, we will be reluctant to enter into any consent agreement that facilitates Senate activities, even on routine matters. Just this year we passed the class action and bankruptcy bills under procedures negotiated in good faith between the majority and the minority. We would decline to provide such cooperation in the future if you implement the nuclear option.

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