Did Harry Reid Choose to Lose a Battle to Win the War?

Yesterday, I wrote a piece criticizing Harry Reid and senate institutionalists who went for protecting the silent, call-in filibuster. That criticism, with all my distaste for the instituionalists' pursuit of extraordinary power, stands. But. And there's always a but, isn't there. For all the explanations of the deal I read yesterday, I kept coming back to this: Harry Reid wouldn't do this if he didn't want the Republicans to use the filibuster. Well, does he? I think he might, as a trap. What if Harry Reid here chose to lose a battle in order to win a war? The war would be the 2014 election, and more broadly, breaking the back of the current Republican intransigence. Harry Reid is after all a boxer. He's been known to whoop Republicans with political strategy before. So, I think this is worth another look.

For all the disappointment of the reformers, including myself, let's consider what Harry Reid actually did by preserving the easy filibuster while limiting it on motions to proceed. Basically, 8 senators from each side, including the majority and minority leaders, can bypass a filibuster to move a bill to the floor, or the majority leader can do it by himself, as long as he allows votes on two amendments from the minority.

So? So, by preserving the silent filibuster on actual votes but essentially eliminating it on bringing the bills to the floor in the first place, Harry Reid ensures that Republicans can easily filibuster bills, but only after they are brought to the floor. The silent filibuster is also preserved for actual votes on cabinet-level nominees. In fact, Reid may be daring the Republicans do exactly that on wildly popular parts of the president's agenda, like immigration reform, gun safety legislation, and education reform. Reid is also daring the Republicans to filibuster nominees like Chuck Hagel.

What good would that do? Plenty, if you think about political strategy. Mitch McConnell right now is downright giddy, having defeated the filibuster reformers. Who else is listening to this, besides us reformists and the media? The Republican base. The Teabaggers have now been told that Republicans still have the filibuster in the Senate that they can use to block everything. Are they going to insist on it? Oh, you bet. They are going to demand that the Republicans filibuster immigration reform, to keep them brown people out. They are going to demand the Republicans filibuster common sense gun safety measures, for no reasons other than that those were proposed by President Obama.

And you know there will be Republican senators taking that bait. Mitch McConnell, who may be facing tea party challenge in his own primary in 2014, may not be able to do much about that, either. So, what if they do it on immigration reform? At the end of the day, there are enough Republicans scared of the demographic shifts that it will pass. But in the middle of it, a GOP filibuster, which ultimately cannot be sustained, will take place anyway. And the filibuster will take place on the actual bill, as Republicans will be unable to keep the bill from coming to the floor. Whatever poison pill amendments they want to offer will be defeated. The bill will pass, but Democrats will get to point to the Republicans as being the obstructionists anyway, and be truthful about it.

The Republicans will be in a two way bind when this happens. The Tea Party will be ticked off that they didn't stop it - watch out for the meltdown when they come for the heads of the Republican party. The GOP base will also be demoralized at their leadership's "failure" to save America from the brown people (or for "allowing Obama to take away your guns!"). In the mean time, Democratic voters, including the emerging Latino vote, will be pumped up to vote for Democrats. Could the combination of the two, added to the broad scale implementation of the Affordable Care Act, be what puts the Republicans on the defensive in a midterm? I could certainly see it happening.

The same thing applies to budget fights. With the automatic cuts looming in March, the defense industry will be breathing down the GOP's neck to compromise, and the Tea Party will be demanding they hold the line by the means of a filibuster. In the Senate, they will once again demand a filibuster while the defense industry order the Republicans to cave. More demoralization on the Right, more wins on the Left. That might just translate into more Democrats in the 114th Congress.

If the filibuster had been taken away - let me correct that - if the filibuster had been made significantly harder, Republicans would have an excuse to give to their base. "The big bad Democrats took away our ability to block bills! So see, there's nothing we can do except ask you to give us more money." With the silent filibuster essentially intact, they cannot do that. Harry Reid is leaving open the possibility of minority obstructionist power, and making is so that they are doomed if they use it, and doomed if they don't. Harry Reid has just made it much harder politically for the Republicans to cave on things he knows they will ultimately have to cave.

Recently, John Boehner claimed that President Obama was trying to annihilate the Republican party. My first reaction to that was that John of Orange catches onto things a little too late. It may just be that Harry Reid - and Barack Obama, behind the scenes - wants to pick these fights with the Republicans right now. Not just to make policy but to weaken the Republicans, and force them to abandon their crazy wing.

What truly is the case, time will tell. But I do not think that the rumors floating around about the president being 'furious' at Reid for doing this are true. Harry Reid was one of the first senators to ask Barack Obama to run for president - they have a particularly close relationship. While I am still in favor of major reform of the Senate rules to reduce easy minority obstruction, it would not surprise me in the slightest if the two of them orchestrated this move carefully, and if that is what Harry Reid explained to the Democratic senators in their caucus, ultimately resulting in overwhelming support from his caucus. I will wait to see how it pans out, but this might be proverbial rope for the Republicans to hang themselves some more.