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,

Mr. Sasse goes to Washington

Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)

Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)

Midland University President and 2014 Senate hopeful Ben Sasse

Midland University President and 2014 Senate hopeful Ben Sasse

Republican Senate candidate Ben Sasse is reportedly headed to Washington this week to meet with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Oh, to be the fly on the wall during that conversation.

Sasse is the Senate Conservatives Fund’s anointed candidate in the race for Nebraska’s open Senate seat. McConnell and the rest of the GOP in Washington have all but declared war on the SCF and other anti-establishment Republican groups.

SCF is the group that spent $1 million to bring Ted Cruz to the Senate. It claims credit for Deb Fischer’s successful Senate race last year. It not only runs ads attacking current Republican members of the Senate, but it helps their opponents raise money.

So what will McConnell have to say to Sasse?

The Weekly Standard  says McConnell aides are downplaying the significance of the meeting. McConnell tries to meet with all Republican Senate candidates, they say, so the Sasse meeting is just another day at the office for McConnell.

And that may very well be.

McConnell is 71.  Sasse is 42. McConnell has been in the Senate since Sasse was in middle school.   Sasse spent a few years in Washington working for Rep. Jeff Fortenberry or in the Department of Health and Human Services. McConnell has served about as many terms in the Senate as Sasse has years in Washington.

The naturally soft-spoken McConnell may have little to say to Sasse. His beef is with  Sasse’s benefactors at the SCF and the other groups that back Republicans so extreme in their conservatism that they lose in the general election. Among the SCF’s most notable failures are Todd “legitimate rape” Akin in Missouri, Christine “I am not a witch” O’Donnell in Delaware, and Sharron “Second Amendment remedies” Angle in Nevada.

Sasse’s prospects in the May primary are uncertain.  Sasse has the SCF and Club for Growth endorsements, but former State Treasurer Shane Oborn is the establishment’s candidate.  Sasse’s campaign has thus far centered on abolishing the Affordable Care Act, an odd choice considering that Obamacare will have been fully implemented for more than a year by the time Nebraska’s new senator even takes office.

McConnell told the Wall Street Journal that if Republicans are going to regain control of the Senate, they must back candidates “that don’t scare the general public, [and] convey the impression that we could actually be responsible for governing, you can trust us — we’re adults here, we’re grown-ups.”

He said the Senate Conservatives Fund “has elected more democrats than the Democratic Senatorial Committee over the past three cycles.”

What’s worse, SCF and tea party groups raise money from unsuspecting Americans after giving them unrealistic expectations of what Republicans can accomplish in the Senate with a 10-seat disadvantage to the Democratic majority.

“They’ve been told the reason we can’t get better outcomes than we’ve gotten is not because the Democrats control the Senate and the White House but because Republicans have been insufficiently feisty. Well, that’s just not true,” McConnell told the WSJ‘s Peggy Noonan.

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