There are lots of reasons why the move by Harry Reid yesterday was bad, of course, Carl Levin’s opposition focused on the worst of the abuse, which was not the change to the filibuster itself but the violation of the supermajority requirement for mid-session rule changes. That set a precedent for future Senate majorities to pretty much run roughshod over future Senate minorities, no matter which party is represented by which. That guarantees that the Senate will end up with the same level of bipartisan cooperation as the House, which is to say none at all, if the minority has no stake in cooperating — and clearly, Reid has removed any incentive at all for cooperation, at least in this session.
However, does anyone outside of the Beltway and political junkies really care about it? Will this drive elections? Chris Cillizza and Sean Sullivan are skeptical:
And yet, for the world outside of Washington, invoking the nuclear option and the changing of filibuster rules are non-happenings — moments that barely register and almost certainly will have zero impact on who they vote for in the coming midterm elections.
Polling, which is somewhat scarce on the subject, tells the story of just how little people know about the filibuster. Check out this chart from Pew:
Image courtesy of Pew
So, roughly one in four people knew that 60 votes were needed to break a filibuster. The largest group — almost four in 10 — didn’t know enough to even offer a guess-timate on how many votes were needed to break a filibuster. Good times.
Now, there is a difference between not knowing about the specific mechanics of the filibuster and valuing the concept of it as protection for minority rights in Congress. Still, though, most Americans care about the impact of legislation, not the niceties of the debate that produces it. And this means that Republicans have to be careful about how they react to the change. They can make Reid pay by miring the Senate through the refusal of unanimous consent, which would force Reid to negotiate from a weaker hand than under the previous filibuster rules, but that will only work to the extent that it blocks unpopular legislation. It also carries the risk of making that fight the big story, rather than the ObamaCare meltdown, which is something that voters actually do care about.
On the other hand, it’s not going to do much for Democrats, either. The ploy was a transparent attempt to change the subject and pander to their activist base, as Chuck Todd noted yesterday:
“Right now, don’t forget, the base of the Democratic Party – particularly the activist base – not in a good place, not feeling good about health care,” Todd told MSNBC anchor Andrea Mitchell.
“This has been something that many in the activist base of the Democratic Party have been wanting Harry Reid to do for a while,” he continued. “So, I think this is also about a moment of reassurance to the Democratic base who is feeling a little bit, you know, under attack and under siege a little bit because of how poorly the health care rollout is going.”
So, now Reid pulled the trigger … and the drama will have gone out of presidential appointments for the rest of this session. That still leaves a year of disaster ahead on ObamaCare, and removes at least one potential distraction for Democrats, who have cried about Republican obstruction ever since the ObamaCare fight itself. Even in practical terms, the nuclear option won’t change anything, because Reid had successfully used it to push the GOP into retreat on filibusters on appointments more than once. All this does is remove the pretense.
In other words, for both Democrats and Republicans, the filibuster fight itself is likely to have almost no impact past the Thanksgiving holidays with most Americans, and might not even have had much impact at all. That’s bad news for Democrats, and very good news for Republicans if they can win both the White House and Senate in 2016. Harry Reid just gave them carte blanche if that happens, and no one outside the Beltway seems to mind.