Question Day: Nuclear Fallout in Senate?

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Matthew Schrepfer asked: "the continued Republican obstruction on nominees--normal or nuclear retribution?"

Short answer: It's not entirely clear, but my best guess is something like a new normal obstruction.

To go back a bit, Harry Reid and the Democrats changed the de facto rules on nominations back in November, reducing the number of votes needed to defeat a filibuster from 60 down to a simple majority present and voting. Republicans had threatened to "shut down the Senate" if Democrats went ahead with this "nuclear option," just as Democrats had threatened to do when Republicans contemplated a similar reform during the George W. Bush presidency.

Senate rules allow the minority party to almost completely derail normal business, so Republicans have the tools to fulfill their threat. Yet (as I predicted; I'm proud of this one), they haven't come close to pursuing maximum retaliation. On the legislative track, things appear to be moving and not moving about the same way they have been since 2011. Nothing new.

But on nominations, it appears that Republicans have ratcheted up obstruction in a couple ways. They seem less willing to allow some lever-level nominations to pass by unanimous consent without a cloture process. And they seem more likely to insist on the full time allotment on each filibustered nominee (that is, not yielding back the remaining time available to them after a successful cloture vote). Of course, Democrats can now push through any nomination on which they have at least 51 votes, but if each one takes a few days of floor time, then lower-priority nominees may never get confirmed.

So is it normal obstruction? Retaliation? My sense is it's more the former. That is, Republicans aren't so much punishing Democrats for what they did, they're just using the rules to get a little leverage. To some extent, that's one reason majority party Senators have been reluctant to use majority-imposed reform to get their way. Unless the majority party is willing to tear up the rules completely, there are always going to be ways for the minority party to get leverage.

The Republicans' "nullification" filibusters were such a major problem that Democrats had little choice but to curb them. The establishment of a new normal -- Senate work still gets done -- does suggest that the next stymied majority party may not be eager to eliminate the legislative filibuster, as some believe. But the threat of a Senate run as a majority party dictatorship is still quite live.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

(Jonathan Bernstein covers U.S. politics for Bloomberg View. He is co-editor of "The Making of the Presidential Candidates 2012." Follow him on Twitter at @JBPlainblog.)

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