Senate Rules Change May Backfire on Democrats

Jul 16, 2013 7:30am

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will likely press ahead with the so-called “nuclear option” of changing Senate rules, but will it soon come back to haunt his party?

As early as today, the Reid, D-Nev., and his Democratic caucus could enact rules changes to effectively end Republicans’ ability to block executive-branch nominees. For weeks, as Reid has mulled the maneuver, Republicans have cried foul.

“These are dark days in the history of the Senate,” Reid’s GOP counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on Thursday. McConnell has pointed out that Republicans have approved all of Obama’s Cabinet nominees, but the issue is for several significant, lower-level nominees, including those Obama has tapped to head the National Labor Relations Board and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The pending change would only apply to executive-branch nominees–not legislation, and not judicial nominees–but Republicans have threatened broader consequences anyway.

The merits of Reid’s move aside, it could set a precedent Democrats may regret if they lose the Senate majority in 2014, and if Republicans take control of the White House in 2016. Republicans have warned of that outcome.

McConnell has warned that Republicans could push through a bill to approve a nuclear-waste dumping site at Yucca Mountain, in Reid’s home state of Nevada, and former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele warned Reid could regret it as soon as 2015.

“The reality of it is, Harry Reid, this will come back and bite you when we take the Senate in 2014. So then you live in that world, you know flip it back and forth, let it go,” Steele said Monday morning on MSNBC.

He could be right: Republicans stand an outside chance of retaking the Senate in 2014, and prognosticators have said they’re likely to at least come close.

Democrats  control 54 Senate seats. Republicans, who control 46, will need to gain six seats in 2014 in order to gain the majority and override Vice President Joe Biden’s tie-breaking vote.

The math adds up in the GOP’s favor, at this point in the election cycle.

Republicans will defend fewer seats than Democrats in 2014. Republicans currently hold 15 seats up for election, while Democrats hold 20.

And of the GOP-held seats, more are likely to fall safely back into the GOP column. In a special election this October, Republicans are likely to lose the New Jersey seat held by Sen. Jeffrey Chiesa, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie after the death of Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg. But Democrats could face equally long odds next fall in retaining the South Dakota seat held by retiring Sen. Tim Johnson, mathematically canceling an expected GOP loss in New Jersey.

Republicans most competitive race is McConnell’s reelection bid against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, according to The Cook Political Report. McConnell is favored to win, according to Cook.

Democrats, meanwhile, are confronting a handful of competitive races after a string of retirements. The seats that will be vacated by retiring Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., are all considered vulnerable.

Democrats face long odds in Montana, where former governor Brian Schweitzer has declined to run. In Iowa, Democrats have fielded a strong candidate in Rep. Bruce Braley, and a premier GOP rival has yet to emerge, giving Democrats a better chance to retain that seat.

In a handful of red and purple states, incumbent Democratic senators could face tough races, although big-name GOP challengers have yet to materialize. Battle-tested Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Mark Pryor, D-Ark., have defeated GOP challenges before, but Sens. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., and Mark Begich, D-Alaska, will be running for reelection for the first time in states that have proven difficult for Democrats in recent years. Again, no star-studded Republican candidates have emerged to challenge them.

Of the races deemed competitive by Cook, Republicans have roughly eight opportunities to win the six seats they need–meaning GOP candidates will need to perform consistently across the board, or be helped by extraneous national political factors or stumbles by seemingly safe Democratic incumbents.

There could be room for Republicans to grow. The GOP has yet to make headway in some purple states where Democrats won competitive races the last time around. Sens. Mark Udall, D-Colo., Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Mark Warner, D-Va., all represent states that were competitive for part or all of the last presidential race, but Republicans have yet to threaten them with candidates able to attract money and favorable polling. While Warner appears safe, former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown is reportedly considering a bid in New Hampshire, one that could shake that race up.

Barring any major developments, the landscape favors Republicans in 2014, but they’ll need to win nearly all of the competitive races to take over the Senate majority.

Which means there’s an outside chance Republicans are right, and that Reid and Senate Democrats could regret changing the rules of the Senate after the next national Election Day.

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