The push to change U.S. Senate rules to curb extended debate came as the chamber has undergone its biggest turnover in more than 30 years, potentially skewing the perspective of Democrats supporting the revision that, if adopted, could have handicapped them in the future.
The Senate, unlike the U.S. House, is a legislative body where the majority’s hold has been tenuous because members are elected statewide rather than from uniquely drawn districts. Starting in the 1980 election, when big gains by Republicans gave them a Senate majority for the first time in 26 years, the two parties have swapped control of the chamber six times, compared to three power shifts in the House.
“Senior members, they learned the lesson of the 1980 election, that indeed you can find yourself in the minority very quickly,” said Richard Baker, the Senate’s former historian. “Then, just the frequent shifts of parties really brought the lesson home that there, but for the grace of God, we may go if we end up in the minority, and we need the protection of the filibuster.”
Senators agreed today to expedite some of President Barack Obama’s executive appointments, including Richard Cordray to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, under a compromise announced by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat. Reid said yesterday that without an accord, he would proceed to alter the procedures the Republican minority used to block the appointments. Senate Democrats and Republicans met for more than three hours last night behind closed doors to discuss the impasse.
A victory by Democrats to curb the use of the filibuster -- known in political parlance as the “nuclear option” -- carried political risks for them. Republicans could have retaliated with more filibusters on legislation and Obama’s judicial nominees, who weren’t covered by Reid’s proposed rule change.
“It will not be pleasant,” Robert Dove, a former Senate parliamentarian, said July 12 at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based research institution led by former Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina. “You will have poured poison into a well that will be there for years and years and years.”
In addition, Republicans could have turned the tables by winning control of the Senate in next year’s elections. Virtually all of the politically competitive seats among the 35 on the ballot in 2014 are held by Democrats, with Republicans needing as of now a net gain of five seats for the majority.
And depending on the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, a Democratic minority could have found itself powerless to stall or block appointments they oppose by a Republican administration.
Most of the 54 senators who comprise today’s Democratic Senate caucus haven’t experienced life as the chamber’s minority. Thirty Democrats and the two independents who are part of the caucus began serving after the 2006 election, when the party won a majority that it defended in each of the past three elections.
Of all 100 senators, 46 have been in the chamber fewer than six years, up from 29 a decade ago and the most since 1982, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Reid, in pursuing the threat to end filibusters of nominees for posts in the executive branch, has argued that Republicans have gone overboard in preventing Obama from picking who he wants to work for him in his second term. Under the Senate’s current rules, 60 votes are needed to cut off such filibusters, six more than the current Democratic majority.
“Whoever is president, they should have the ability to pick their team,” Reid said yesterday at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a Washington group with ties to Democrats. “We need to stop blocking this president and the future presidents from having a qualified team that he thinks is what he needs.”
The Senate faced a similar showdown in 2005, when the then-Republican majority was threatening to change the rules after losing patience with Democratic objections to President George W. Bush’s judicial appointees. The situation was resolved after a bipartisan “Gang of 14” negotiated a compromise accepted by the leadership. Of those 14 senators who cut the deal, only five are still serving.
The chamber’s institutional memory will be drained again next year when seven senators with an accumulated 168 years of service are retiring. Four of the seven longest-serving senators in history, with 188 years of service, left the Senate between 2009 and 2012 due to death or political defeat.
The senators elected in recent years are serving in a chamber where the two parties clash frequently and have become more ideologically distinct.
They “have been exposed only to a hyper-partisan environment that produces nothing but gridlock, which results in lurching from crisis to crisis,” Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican who worked with Democrats during an 18-year Senate tenure she ended after not seeking re-election in 2012, said in a 2013 book, “Fighting for Common Ground.”
The less-tenured members don’t recall a different era that included more “cross-party success,” and “only are familiar with the politics of failure - in which the political winner takes all and yet, in the end, everybody loses,” Snowe said.
The Senate has had some success at passing bipartisan legislation. The chamber approved an extensive revision of immigration laws on June 27, and earlier in the month passed a five-year replacement for a farm-policy bill.
One reason for that may be that more senators are arriving from the House, which is historically more confrontational than the Senate, said Sean Theriault, a political scientist at the University of Texas in Austin.
The 52 senators in the current 113th Congress with prior House service tie a post-World War II record. They include South Carolina Republican Senator Tim Scott, who’s aligned with Tea Party activists who want to reduce government spending, and Wisconsin Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin, who almost always votes with her party’s leaders.
“Those members who are reared in the House take that experience with them to the Senate,” said Theriault. “And the Senate is a much different chamber because of the different institutional rules it has to operate under.”
The increased turnover in the Senate owes to a confluence of factors, political analysts say.
One is generational. Senators who were elected in the 1970s and 1980s, when the chamber last experienced comparable turnover, are now at retirement age. Among them is Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat first elected in 1978, who said in March that he wouldn’t seek a seventh term next year, when he would be 80 years old.
Increased partisanship and the escalating cost of campaigns are prompting others to leave.
The Senate “may not be fun anymore,” said Daniel M. Shea, a political scientist at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. “Hyper-partisanship” makes it “difficult for moderates to do good work in the legislature.”
Poor public approval ratings for Congress -- less than 14 percent in an average of polls compiled by the RealClearPolitics website -- and an economy still recovering from the deepest recession since the Great Depression also contributes to turnover.
“We’ve had a decade of war and terrible economic downturn, so it’s no wonder why some incumbents may retire rather than face being the dog that the public wants to kick,” Michael Wolf, a political scientist at Indiana University - Purdue University in Fort Wayne, said in an e-mail.
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