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May 20, 2013 6:22 PM When A Threat Is No Worse Than the Status Quo

By Ed Kilgore

At Ten Miles Square today, Sarah Binder evaluates the chess game going on between Harry Reid and Senate Republicans over the filibustering of executive and judicial-branch nominees. Like Jonathan Bernstein, she thinks the key factor is the credibility of Harry Reid’s threat to “go nuclear.” But, she notes, Reid’s not the only one with cards to play:

As a potentially nuclear Senate summer approaches, I would keep handy an alternative interpretation. Reid isn’t the only actor with a threat: given Republicans’ aggressive use of Rule 22, Republicans can credibly threaten to retaliate procedurally if the Democrats go nuclear. And that might be a far more credible threat than Reid’s. We know from the report on Reid’s nuclear thinking that “senior Democratic Senators have privately expressed worry to the Majority Leader that revisiting the rules could imperil the immigration push, and have asked him to delay it until after immigration reform is done (or is killed).” That tidbit suggests that Democrats consider the GOP threat to retaliate as a near certainty. In other words, if Republicans decide not to block all three nominees and Democrats don’t go nuclear, we might reasonably conclude that the minority’s threat to retaliate was pivotal to the outcome. As Steve Smith, Tony Madonna and I argued some time ago, the nuclear option might be technically feasible but not necessarily politically feasible.
To be sure, it’s hard to arbitrate between these two competing mechanisms that might underlie Senate politics this summer. In either scenario—the majority tames the minority or the minority scares the bejeezus out of the majority—the same outcome ensues: Nothing.

What Senate Democrats need to think through is how bad an implemented Republican threat to shut down the Senate would be as compared to the status quo, particularly if the immigration bill is out of the way. Yes, Republicans could object constantly to unanimous consent requests and other routine measures and make life miserable. But for the most party, a Senate where most important legislation requires sixty votes would be replaced by a Senate where all legislation requires sixty votes. That doesn’t sound like a lurch hellwards to me. The Senate is already dancing to the devil’s tune.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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