The fizzle of the nuclear option

Deb Fischer reacts to changes in Senate filibuster rules

For some in Republicanland, there is no problem that cannot be connected to Obamacare. Sen. Fischer’s comment about a broken promise is an apparent reference to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s statement in July that he would not pursue the nuclear option. Since then, Senate Republicans have reneged on their  promise not to filibuster President Obama’s judicial nominees.

How upset were Senate Republicans when their Democratic colleagues voted Thursday to upend tradition and lower the threshold for  overcoming filibusters on presidential nominees?

Not very.

Thursday morning, Majority Leader Harry Reid spent 15 minutes laying out the case for dropping the number of votes needed for most executive branch and judicial nominees from 60 to 50.

  • Senate Republicans have filibustered 160 Obama appointees in less than five years.
  • There are now 75 executive branch nominees pending in the Senate. Ten percent of federal judgeships are vacant.
  • Republican filibusters have left important departments leaderless. It was 900 days before the Senate confirmed an EPA administrator. Former Neb. Sen. Chuck Hagel’s nomination was held up 34 days — three times longer than normal for a secretary of Defense nominee, and at a time when the U.S. was actively involved in a ground war. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was leaderless for two years — long enough for the woman largely responsible for its creation, Elizabeth Warren, to get herself elected to the Senate in time to vote for Obama’s pick.

“The American people believe Congress is broken. The American people believe the Senate is broken,” Reid said. “And  I believe the American people are right.”

Then his Republican counterpart, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell spoke for another 15 minutes. Not about Senate tradition, or the importance of a minority voice, or even the filibuster rules. He talked about Obamacare.

“Over the past several weeks, the American people have been witness to one of the most breathtaking — breathtaking — indictments of big-government liberalism in memory, and I’m not just talking about a website,” McConnell started.

“I’m talking about the way in which Obamacare was forced on the public by an administration and a Democratic-led Congress that we now know is willing to do and say anything — anything — to pass the law.”

And that’s the way McConnell continued. Obamacare. Obamacare. Obamacare. Even the vote to change the filibuster rules was, he said, a means of distracting the public from Obamacare. It wasn’t until later — in many cases much later — that the rules change itself got any attention.

Why the lack of concern over the filibuster vote?

First, some Republican senators will be relieved that they don’t have to vote for presidential nominees, no matter how qualified. Scads of conservative groups that give money and other support to Senators also rank members of Congress on their votes — including votes of presidential appointees. In addition to possible concern about future fundraising, the rankings matter because voters use them when deciding which candidates to support.

Heritage Action, the political action arm of the Heritage Foundation, for example, has used six Obama nominations in its scoring of Senators this year. One of them was Hagel’s nomination, on which Nebraska’s Sens. Mike Johanns and Deb Fischer split. Johanns, who is retiring next year, voted for his fellow Nebraskan. Fischer did not.

(Overall, neither Nebraska senator ranks up to par with Heritage Action, which currently rates Johanns at  56 percent and Fischer at 64 percent. This year’s Republican average in the Senate was a 67 percent score on 31 votes.)

Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss) is one member of Congress who might be relieved not to have to vote on presidential nominees. Far-right national fundraising groups are so unhappy with Cochran's moderate, traditionalist performance that they have already endorsed a different Republican in Mississippi's 2014 primary. Cochran has not said yet whether he will run for re-election.

Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss) is one member of Congress who might be relieved not to have to vote on presidential nominees. Far-right national fundraising groups are so unhappy with Cochran’s moderate, traditionalist performance that they have already endorsed a different Republican in Mississippi’s 2014 primary. Cochran has not said yet whether he will run for re-election.

Second,  blasting Obamacare is the only thing Republicans have going for them. Their approval rating is at rock-bottom, and they aren’t getting anything done. No Farm Bill, no budget, no agreement on immigration reform. By Republican design, it will be one of the least productive years in congressional history.

Anyone who missed the message about obstructionism from the inaugural-night meeting Republicans held in 2009 to plan anti-Obama strategy, got a reminder from  Speaker John Boehner (R-OH)  in July.

“We should not be judged on how many laws we create,” Boehner told CBS News. “We ought to be judged on how many laws we repeal.”

See Thursday morning’s conversation  between Reid and McConnell at C-Span,

Washington Drama Queens

Legislation to continue funding the federal government after Monday, continues to ping-pong between the House and the Senate.

In Sunday’s wee hours, the House passed a new version of H.J. Res. 59, the Continuing Appropriations Resolution 2014, with a poison pill potent enough to ensure its rejection by the Senate.

By a vote of 231-192, the House agreed to send to the Senate a measure that would keep the government open for another six weeks, until Dec. 15, but would delay the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, for a year and would delay contraceptive coverage for women from employer-paid health insurance policies.

All three of Nebraska’s members of Congress, Lee Terry, Adrian Smith and Jeff Fortenberry, voted for the measure.

Just two days earlier, the Senate stripped out a similar attempt to kill Obamacare and passed a “clean” funding measure on a vote of 54-44, with both Nebraska senators, Mike Johanns and Deb Fischer, voting against the clean bill.

Although the Republicans control the House, Democrats control the Senate. With the votes of just 51 of the 54 Democrats in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid could essentially kill the House’s version of the resolution. That would only add pressure to Speaker John Boehner to come up with a spending measure that does not defund the Affordable Care Act.

Sen. Reid has assured Boehner that a provision to kill or delay Obamacare will never pass the Senate and, even if does, it faces a certain veto from President Obama, and Republicans lack the votes to override that veto.

Altogether, it means a government shutdown at 12:01 Tuesday, the same day Americans now without health insurance can start shopping for coverage. The full roll-out of the Affordable Care Act begins Jan. 1.

The House’s move to delay Obamacare for a year seems to be just a set-up for continuing chaos in Washington. Twelve months from now, the House will still be controlled by the Republicans, the Democrats will still control the Senate, and President Obama will still be president. Because the Republican measure funds the government only until Dec. 15, the likelihood of a government shutdown over the holidays would continue to loom large.

The House also passed a provision Sunday that would keep paychecks flowing to the military personnel in the event of a shutdown, but some 7,000 other government employees would be without paychecks for the duration.

Also looming on the horizon is the additional drama that will come in October from raising the debt ceiling. House Republicans now plan to hold an increase in the debt ceiling hostage to a laundry list of GOP priorities, including a year-long delay of the ACA and approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Raising the debt ceiling has nothing to do with future government spending. It merely gives the government the authorization to pay the bills that Congress has already incurred from previous budgets. By not raising the debt ceiling, Congress ensures that government bills will go unpaid.

Defaulting on financial obligations has much the same creditworthy-crashing effect on our government as it would on any household, only the impact on world markets would be 300 million percent larger.

More chaos. More drama. When does it stop?