Thoughts on Filibuster Reform and Electoral Politics

One of the biggest fights in the Senate is reform of its own rules regarding the filibuster. This writer has written entries on Senatorial reform in the past, some of which has decried the use of holds and filibusters by both parties. However, a sober analysis of the entire issue clearly illustrates that the filibuster serves a very important purpose, namely guarding against the “tyranny of the majority.” We have lived through that scenario not that long ago when Democrats held majorities in the House and Senate and the White House. We added $6 trillion to the national debt, jettisoned the idea of a federal budget, got Obamacare rammed down our collective throats, and a host of other dubious Obama legislation.

Harry Reid and his Democratic cohorts used a parliamentary sleight of hand to keep open the possibility of filibuster reform. Democrats would not get all they wanted, but Republicans would still maintain some power even though in the minority. Although the filibuster per se survives, the new procedures will make it easier to confirm presidential appointees and possibly only delay votes on other legislation. The problem is that Obama and the Democrats, as they have proven in the past, can inflict a lot of damage in a short period of time.

However, most legislation requires the approval of both houses of Congress. Hence, having the House in Republican control would possibly be the braking mechanism on an out-of-control Senate, especially in the important fiscal areas. Of course, the House has no say in treaty ratification or presidential nominations, but they certainly control the purse and could refuse funding for treaty implementation and the like.

Given this “braking mechanism-” and a lot depends on Boehner solidifying the GOP majority- coupled with political reality, the Senate is proceeding at their own risk. Many of the hold outs over filibuster reform in the Senate among the Democrats were, not too long ago, in the minority party in that body. They know full well the power of the Senate rules in thwarting an over-zealous opposition party agenda. And political reality is the 2014 Senate elections.

Once again, there are considerably more Democratic seats in play than there are Republican seats. Just looking at the GOP seats, all of them are relatively safe with the only danger to an incumbent (assuming they all seek reelection) coming not from Democrats but from a primary challenge. Only Thad Cochran in Mississippi has not definitively demonstrated a tendency to seek reelection. The “vulnerable” Republicans are possibly Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, Lamar Alexander in Tennessee and Lindsey Graham in South Carolina who may face primary challenges from the right. However, depending on the Democratic opposition, should the incumbent lose a primary, these are fairly reliable Republican keeper seats.

Looking at the Democratic seats, only one incumbent has announced his retirement- Rockefeller in West Virginia. The only Republican announcing their candidacy in that race is Shelley Moore Capito, an almost slam dunk to take this seat for the Republicans in a state that has a visceral aversion to Obama and, by extension, liberal Democratic policies. Six other incumbents are fence sitters when it comes to running again- Schatz in Hawaii, Durbin in Illinois, Harkin in Iowa, Lautenberg in New Jersey, Johnson in South Dakota and Levin in Michigan. We can add a seventh in Massachusetts in an election for Kerry’s seat. Republicans have their best chances in South Dakota and possibly Iowa. In the latter case (Iowa), given the state’s propensity to shift towards Democrats, a moderate Republican would likely have the best chance while a more conservative Republican would have a good chance in South Dakota.

Among the incumbent Democrats that could face serious GOP challenges are Begich in Alaska, Pryor in Arkansas, Landrieu in Louisiana, Baucus in Montana, Shaheen in New Hampshire, and Hagan in North Carolina. Romney won all these states in 2012 with the exception of New Hampshire. But, New Hampshire politics is usually a crap shoot, much like Wisconsin or Minnesota. In fact, I would even throw Al Franken’s seat in Minnesota onto the list of possibilities. Two of these states- Louisiana and Alaska- are energy producing states and if Obama sticks to his climate change/attack on fossil fuel mantra, there would likely be voter backlash in these states against Democrats. Also, Begich in Alaska barely won his first time out and there is a good stable of possible GOP challengers in Alaska.

Thus, assuming the Republican Party does not shoot itself in the foot again this year (never a given), it is poised to possibly gain control of the Senate yet again. They only need 6 seats. The likely best targets are: West Virginia, South Dakota, Alaska, North Carolina, Montana and New Hampshire. Assuming the GOP runs strong candidates and campaigns in Louisiana and Arkansas, Republican chances are even better. The bottom line is that should this occur, Harry Reid would be in the minority and likely pining for the days of the filibuster as it existed before “reform.”

The fact is that the Democrats are likely to lose seats in the House in 2014 thus keeping it in GOP hands. Combined with a good chance to win the Senate, the entire Congress could provide the braking system on Obama’s liberal agenda and the rules for doing so would be made even easier for them thanks to, ironically, Harry Reid and the “filibuster-reform” minded Democrats in the Senate of the 113th Congress.

There are two big elephants in the room. The first is maintaining control of the House. Democrats need 17 seats to gain control of that chamber in 2014. To do so, they would have to buck midterm historical trends which usually indicate a loss of seats for the party occupying the White House. However, based on some analysis of electoral trends, there are more vulnerable Republican incumbents, or more targets of opportunity. Sure, there are also Democratic targets out there, but the GOP obviously has more to lose. Second, this will be the third election cycle in a row now that practically every expert and pundit has predicted that Republicans are poised to make big gains in the Senate. Although Republicans ate into the Democratic majority in 2010 in what can best be described as either a baby step forward or a huge lost opportunity, clearly 2012 was a disaster and a huge step back making 2014 much harder. Therefore, there is no certainty that 2014 will be any better. To put it another way, the Republican Party has an uncanny ability to shoot itself in the foot.

There is no doubt that Obama is emboldened by his big 52% of the vote victory. He wants to leave office the way he came in so that he can solidify his liberal legacy- with a Democratic-controlled Congress that will rubber stamp his policies, initiatives, and appointments. So although the compromise negotiated can backfire on Reid at some point, it is rife with pitfalls, mainly the Republican Party’s inability to finish the game.