Take two esteemed public servants whose power arises from their own reputations as honest brokers. Put them on a Sunday network television show with an impossible task: Argue with passion and principle for the opposite of a position they held with similar conviction just a decade earlier. Congressional politics has long been theater without much entertainment. This Sunday, it bordered on farce.
On NBC’s Meet The Press, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, 73, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, 71, both tried their best. At issue was whether the Senate should go nuclear this week—amending its rules with a controversial parliamentary maneuver to strip from the Republicans the ability to block President Obama’s nominees with just 40 votes.
A decade ago, when Democrats were in the minority blocking George W. Bush’s nominees, McConnell thought this was a grand idea, calling it a “constitutional” effort to help the Senate get “back to tradition.” Now he thinks it’s a terrible idea. “It’s breaking the rules of the Senate in order to change the rules of the Senate,” McConnell said Sunday. He also called it “a threat to blow up the Senate.”
In 2005, Reid said the nuclear option was “an illegal precedent,” and he cited the Constitution in his defense. “Nowhere in that document does it say the Senate has a duty to give presidential nominees ‘an up-or-down vote,’” he said then. Now he claims the Constitution demands the change. “The constitution’s pretty specific: If you want a super majority vote, look at what a veto is or a treaty, but if you want to look at the nomination, you know what the founding fathers said, simple majority,” Reid said Sunday.
Both men are Senate lifers, and they love the institution they have served together in for decades. But they seem unclear on how to save it. “Our approval rating is lower than North Korea’s,” Reid said at one point, suggesting that the delay in approving nominees to the National Labor Relations Board might be the culprit. A more obvious cause lay right in front of them: The Senate is filled with people who say what they think needs to be said in the moment for political advantage, with little respect for their audience, the American people. It has become a body that peddles outrage and indignation, not intellectual integrity or consistency.
While both Reid and McConnell claimed history and tradition, they were in fact both playing a different game, ratcheting up the pressure to improve their odds in the coming back-room negotiations over just how many of Obama’s nominees will be confirmed, and just how quickly. Currently, the key fights are over two positions at the labor board, the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Secretary of Labor. Some appellate court judges also wait in the wings. Just as Republicans held a gun to the head of Senate tradition in 2005 to get many of President Bush’s appellate court judges confirmed, so too are Democrats now threatening to upset precedent unless they get their way.
On Sunday, McConnell seemed to suggest the way out of the impasse. “He’s a reasonable man. He’s a good majority leader,” McConnell said of Reid. “And we’re going to have a chance to air all of this out in a joint conference with all of our members Monday.” McConnell spoke those words exactly three days after he appeared on the Senate floor to announce that Reid would be remembered as the “worst leader here ever,” if he went through with a rule change McConnell once publicly supported. That same day, McConnell’s campaign tweeted out a photo of a tombstone engraved with the words “Harry Reid” and “Killed the Senate.”
If Reid is not able to extract sufficient concessions from Republicans he may still go through with the rules change, which would have unknown ripple effects on the rest of the Senate’s other business over the coming months. Under Reid’s proposals, filibusters would be prohibited only for non-judicial appointments. The minority’s ability to block judges and legislation with just 40 votes would be unchanged. A backlash from Republicans over the nuclear change could make the body even more dysfunctional than it already has become.
But these are questions to be answered when the real work begins, in direct negotiations between the two men and their staff. On Sunday, before the cameras, Reid and McConnell were stuck with the scripts they had written themselves.
After host David Gregory pointed out that Reid’s current position did not jive with his past statements, the senior senator from Nevada repeated a bunch of rehearsed lines that nonetheless contradicted what he had said before. Then he lost his way. “This president has had 16 executive nominations filibustered. We have now 15 pending waiting an average of — waiting an average of,” he stammered, as seconds ticked by. “I lost my number there for a second,” he said after a pause. More seconds passed. It was painful television, but the frankness of Reid’s momentary failing was refreshing. For a few moments, no one on the screen was faking anything.