Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has taken a lot of grief (including from yours truly) for not changing the Senate rules to eliminate the forced tyranny of the minority enforced by the Republicans through the use of the silent filibuster. But the old boxer from Searchlight, Nevada pulled it off this time.
This time, he threatened the use of the "nuclear option" - using a majority to change the rules so that the filibuster couldn't be used to block executive branch nominees. He held fast on that threat, and in the end, Republicans caved. They caved by agreeing to give the 7 hold-up positions - the heads of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau and the EPA, and positions on the National Labor Relations Board, - an up-or-down vote, although President Obama will have to send in two new NLRB nominees (whom the Republicans have promised not to filibuster).
One nominee has already cleared the filibuster hurdle: Richard Cordray, who now seems headed to a Senate confirmation to his job as the Director of the Consumer Protection Bureau.
Although this specific agreement applies only to the seven hold-out nominations, Harry Reid and the Democrats have effectively neutered the only obstructions Senate Republicans alone
are capable of.
“They’re not sacrificing their right to filibuster and we damn sure aren’t giving up our right to change the rules if necessary,” Reid said.
What today's deal proves is that Republicans took Harry Reid's threat to use the nuclear option seriously. They understood that he was not bluffing. They knew that he had the votes to pull this off. That they took the threat seriously means that the threat remains for the rest of this Congress, ready to be used if Republicans go off the reservations again. That the threat remains real and the fact that Republicans were willing to back off in the face of that threat means that that specific use of the filibuster has been canned for the rest of this Congress.
Still, it's only applicable to the executive branch nominees, and even then it only ensures such votes for the next year and a half. Where's the big victory? To understand that, you have to dig a little deeper on how Washington works. A veteran of Senate rules and maneuvers, Harry Reid knew that there is no point in disturbing the rules of the Senate do anything that requires two chambers of Congress to agree. Anything the Republicans would want to block in the Senate, absent the filibuster, could be blocked in the House, which is Republican controlled. So he wasn't going to mess with the filibuster when it comes to legislation. He didn't need to lose political capital doing so, because it would have been ineffective at the end of the day.
Second, while filibusters against judges may still be an issue, wholesale abuse can bring back Reid's threat to use the nuclear option on that, too. And judicial nominees, especially to important courts, can be worth the political fight because they garner more media attention. By moving to essentially thwart filibusters on the executive branch nominees, Reid has freed up time the majority can take to hammer the Republicans and actually have riveting floor debates on judges with the country watching. Judges are different in the sense that they have lifetime appointments, but they are also different in the sense that the country knows what judges do as opposed to some crucial but obscure executive branch position.
Third, and probably most importantly, Senate Republicans just agreed to give up their power to cripple the president's power. They did so through the use the executive branch confirmation process to force changes in laws that protect the American people and consumers, as they had professed to do with the CFPB, or to force parts of government that conducts oversight over industries, as they had promised to do to the NLRB. Republicans in the Senate were just effectively stripped off their power to hold the enforcement of the current laws hostage to the fact that they don't like the current laws to be enforced.
The Republicans just gave up their power to effectively neuter the operations of the most important laws passed under President Obama: Wall Street reform, health care reform, etc. The abuse of the filibuster to effectively shut down parts of government is over.
What does that mean? It means that President Obama is now freer to administratively implement policies that he does not need Congress to pass. That includes consumer protection, environmental regulations (having an EPA head, confirmed by the Senate makes it a lot easier for the administration to regulate carbon emissions
, for example), labor relations regulations (this president's NLRB has shown a particular vigor in enforcing labor laws when businesses abuse them as well as the right of workers to organize), and more. Were it not for the Republicans holding up the president's labor board nominees, today we would have an NLRB rule expediting union elections
Given the obstructions of Republicans in Congress - especially in the Republican majority House - President Obama has chosen to turn the focus on executive branch actions without Congress, and brightening the contrast between his branch of government and the one partially run and badly damaged by the Republicans. For that agenda to be successful and operate without undue hindrance, he needs to have his team in place. Republicans, in the face of a serious threat from Harry Reid, just caved and agreed to give him that. That's the essential neutering. That's gotta hurt.