Senate Republicans Opt for Guerrilla Warfare in Postnuclear Era

The GOP will use targeted attacks rather than all-out war in response to the Democrats' rule change on the filibuster

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Carolyn Kaster / AP

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, left, and Senate majority leader Harry Reid laugh during a ceremony to dedicate the statue of Frederick Douglass in the Emancipation Hall of the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center in Washington on June 19, 2013

For years, Republicans have warned that if majority leader Harry Reid were to use the so-called nuclear option by curtailing the use of filibusters in the Senate, all business in the upper chamber of Congress would come to a grinding halt. Reid went nuclear anyway last month, but as the Senate comes back into session next week, Republicans are not expected to immediately shut down Senate proceedings. Instead, they plan a more tactical path of retribution, or as one senior GOP Senate aide put it, “guerrilla warfare.”

The Senate’s rules are designed to force consensus on everything, from the agreement to say the morning prayer to consideration of every piece of legislation. If Republicans truly wanted to, they could object to every motion on the floor, effectively bringing the Senate to a standstill. But such a move might prove as unpopular as the government shutdown did earlier in the fall. The 113th Congress is already well on its way to being the least productive and most disliked of sessions in the record books.

Fortunately for the GOP, the byzantine Senate rules provide many alternatives to outright warfare, says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “Of course there will be retaliation,” says Sabato. “The Senate rules encourage it, with so many ways provided for single Senators or small groups to slow down the process. The GOP base expects retaliation, and politicians usually play to their base.”

The coming guerrilla war was a long time in the making. On Nov. 21, just before a two-week Thanksgiving and Hanukkah recess, Reid forced through a vote to override the Senate rules and lower the threshold for approving some nominees from 60 votes to 51 votes. Such a move was first threatened in 2005, when Democrats were blocking President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees. Even former Senate majority leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, said changing the judicial filibuster rules would be incredibly dangerous as it would effectively blow up the Senate, coining the term “nuclear option.”

During the run-up to last month’s filibuster showdown, Senate Republicans warned that if Democrats changed the rules on nominations, it would be a short leap to change them on every piece of legislation. “Senator Reid is an able and experienced leader,” Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, said in June. “He knows that if Democrats figure out a way to do anything they want with 51 votes, Republicans can figure that out too. And if we’re in charge, we’ll do it.” Alexander vowed Republicans would repeal Obamacare and the estate tax and open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling by simple majority votes when they next take control of the Senate.

That may be a few years yet, which is perhaps why Reid took the gamble to change the rules. “If you look around the country, we’re doing pretty well,” Reid said before the nuclear vote, referring to the 2014 electoral map. “This won’t be much of a story in a week or two,” Reid said of the filibuster fight. Though Republicans should be poised to make gains given a spate of Democratic retirements in swing states, they have had trouble with Tea Party primaries, fundraising, as well as defending a couple of seats, including that of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican. Most experts do not predict the Senate will flip in 2014, and 2016 is a much improved landscape for Democrats with less vulnerable seats to defend.

Still, there is much Republicans in the minority can do to inflict pain in the more immediate future. The Senate has a heavy schedule between now and the end of the year: Budget Committee negotiators must find a deal to avoid another government shutdown in January, the Farm Bill is still pending, as is the annual National Defense Authorization Act. Not to mention a host of nominations. And while Democrats may have an easier time with floor approval given the new rules, they still have to contend with other obscure procedural provisions, like blue slipping, where home state senators can effectively veto a judicial nominee. All except one of Obama’s pending federal-court nominees hail from states that have at least one Republican Senator. Democrats will have to scramble to figure out where and when Republicans might strike.

So, the world’s greatest deliberative body looks likely to be reduced to a low-grade tactical war. “The end of the filibuster was inevitable — we just didn’t know exactly when it would happen. The filibuster was designed for a Senate that prized consensus,” Sabato says. “That era is long gone, and we’ve moved into an intensely polarized period that is unlikely to end anytime soon.”