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July 10, 2013 10:13 AM How Much Worse Can the Senate Get?

By Ed Kilgore

There’s a lot of talk in the air today about the Senate Democratic Caucus discussions (apparently culminating tomorrow) on precisely how to deal with Republican obstruction of presidential nominations via a change—or at least a threatened change—in the rules governing filibusters. You will hear a lot less about the radical escalation in use of the filibuster in recent years, to the point where the Senate is barely recognizable, and a lot more about filibuster reform enabling the majority party to “ram” (just notice how often this term is used) legislation through the chamber, threatening the Senate’s hallowed traditions blah blah bark bark woof woof.

The extent to which Republican misbehavior is responsible for the situation will only really become apparent in the threats Mitch McConnell makes in opposing filibuster reform. In a CW-driven piece on the filibuster fight, Manu Raju and John Bresnahan of Politico stumble on the essential truth:

Republicans have a variety of potential options in responding to Reid’s move. They can object to committee meetings and slow action on that front, or try to tie up progress on all legislation, including must-pass appropriations and debt ceiling bills. Democrats counter that this is what’s routinely happening in the Senate now, so why not take the gamble on forcing through a hugely controversial rules change.

That’s right: It’s not at all clear that if Democrats invoked the “nuclear trigger” and Republicans went absolutely insane in retaliatory wrath, we’d even be able to tell the difference. What can Senate Republicans threaten to do that they’re not already doing in the way of impeding the traditional functioning of Congress and of the federal government in general? Sabotage the implementation of major legislation already enacted (check)? Gum up federal agency operations (check)? Risk a debt default (check)?

What WaPo’s Greg Sargent today calls the “post-policy nihilism” of the GOP has, oddly enough, decreased its leverage. Issuing a credible threat to do something irresponsible loses its power when irresponsibility has become a daily habit. Senate Democrats could justifiably decide to limit changes in the filibuster rules to a regime they are willing to live with if they are in the minority. They might also find good reason to distinguish between the rules that govern lifetime judgeships and temporary Cabinet positions. But Republican threats should not be a factor. There’s too little left in that particular strategic reserve.

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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