Will the Senate become the House?

"It pays sometimes for these huge lapses in decorum," one strategist said.

November 25, 2023, 5:14 AM

The House this year has been mired in chaos, punctuated by a 15-round speakership vote, an eight-person regicide, flirtations with government shutdowns and policy stagnations. Next year's elections could determine if the Senate follows suit.

Rabble-rousing Republicans are running for a handful of Senate seats, including Kari Lake in Arizona, Alex Mooney in West Virginia, Jim Marchant in Nevada, James Craig in Michigan and more. Meanwhile, dealmakers like Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Mitt Romney, R-Utah, are retiring.

That means the normally staid Senate could become more like the often chaotic House, injecting further drama into Congress, if several big-name Republicans win their elections next year, strategists told ABC News.

Already, the Senate's reputation for collegiality is on the ropes -- Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., is singlehandedly using the Senate's arcane rules to hold up scores of military promotions, and Sen. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., challenged a witness at a hearing to a fight earlier this month. And should these hard-liners make it through their primaries and ultimately win Senate seats, veteran Senate hands say it's unclear if the chamber's rules and legacy could cool them.

"If you look at recent history about many senators who came in as rabble rousers, a lot of times the institution cooled them, you know, the cooling saucer of the Senate," said Jim Kessler, a co-founder of the center-left group Third Way and a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. "The question is always, does the institution win out, or are these individuals going to change it? And you look at this group, and you really wonder."

PHOTO: Republican candidate for Arizona Governor Kari Lake gestures as she attends the Republican Party of Arizona's 2022 U.S. midterm elections night rally in Scottsdale, Arizona, Nov. 8, 2022.
Republican candidate for Arizona Governor Kari Lake gestures as she attends the Republican Party of Arizona's 2022 U.S. midterm elections night rally in Scottsdale, Arizona, Nov. 8, 2022.
Brian Snyder/Reuters

To be certain, there are fundamental differences between House and Senate rules.

The House requires simple majorities for most legislation to pass, and in a chamber with narrow margins, any small slice of the party in control can hold up legislation or be a kingmaker -- as seen earlier this year when a group of eight Republicans ousted former Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

The Senate, meanwhile, requires 60 votes to past most legislation and rules, essentially forcing some kind of bipartisan consensus unless one party wins an unexpectedly large majority, and lawmakers in the chamber are known to prize some degree of geniality even in harshly partisan times.

But the chamber is also driven by unanimous consent on everything from considering a bill to opening the floor. And while any one senator cannot permanently hold something up, denying the chamber unanimous consent can significantly delay the Senate's work, nearly to the point of paralysis.

The Senate's convivial nature often prevents lawmakers from going to such lengths, but Tuberville's decision to hold up military promotions to protest the Pentagon's policy of paying for service members to travel to get abortions marks a prime example of how one senator can obstruct policy without any help. And it's a playbook lawmakers-in-waiting could be eyeing.

"You've had examples of the rules being used by conservatives to make their case when, obviously, the caucus as a whole doesn't really support them. I think you'll see more of that," said Brian Darling, a GOP strategist and former aide to Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who has used Senate rules to obstruct policy he disagrees with.

"I think you'll see Kari Lake and [Montana Republican] Matt Rosendale and Mooney and others, if they get elected, come in and use the rules, kind of like Tuberville has, to hold up bills, use the filibuster as a way to leverage amendments, to leverage time on the floor to speak and get the caucus to shift a little bit more conservative in the Senate and to be a little bit closer in reflection to how conservative the caucus is in the House."

Senate Republicans certainly have rabble rousers within their ranks already, including Paul, Tuberville and Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Mike Lee, R-Utah. Paul held the Senate floor for almost 13 hours in 2013 to delay voting on the nomination of John Brennan to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, and Cruz helped engineer a government shutdown that year over his opposition to the Affordable Care Act.

PHOTO: Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) questions Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas, FBI Director Wray and National Counterterrorism Center Director Abizaid during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on Oct. 31, 2023.
Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), with Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH), questions U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, FBI Director Christopher Wray and National Counterterrorism Center Director Christine Abizaid during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on threats to the United States, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 31, 2023.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Those lawmakers, while often making up a minority of their party's conference in the Senate, helped pave the way for the current crop of candidates, strategists said.

"Could you get some members who are a little bit more bombastic next cycle? Yeah, but the Senate's always had some bombastic figures, and they come and go in the chamber," said one GOP strategist working on Senate races.

"[If] Kari Lake shows up, she won't be like the first media hound, grandstanding, talented talker who's come to the Senate," the person said. "I think her ego fits in perfectly in the chamber."

It's certainly no guarantee that every candidate would look to manipulate the Senate rules to bring the chamber to a standstill.

Lake, who first ran for governor in 2022 as a hard-liner who later spread conspiracy theories over her loss, has sought to rebrand herself more as a team player this cycle, including by endorsing Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell and meeting with Senate Republicans' campaign arm.

"Kari Lake wants to unite Republicans to win back the Senate majority," a Lake spokesperson said.

Others, though, have explicitly endorsed Tuberville's tactics.

"Congressman Alex Mooney supports Senator Tuberville's actions to halt a rogue President changing longstanding policy," John Findlay, Mooney's campaign manager, said in a statement. "Congressman Mooney would use the Senate rules to hold President Joe Biden accountable and prevent him from acting like a dictator."

PHOTO: Sen. Tommy Tuberville speaks to reporters on his way to a closed-door lunch meeting with Senate Republicans at the Capitol, Nov. 7, 2023.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville speaks to reporters on his way to a closed-door lunch meeting with Senate Republicans at the Capitol, Nov. 7, 2023.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

And some Senate veterans see the new crop of candidates possibly following in the Alabamian's footsteps.

"He's not doing anything that hasn't been in the rules before, but he's using those rules to do something that is really outside the bounds. The rules already give individual senators an inordinate amount of power within the institution, and by the grace of courtesy and precedent and manners, senators generally hold back on what they could potentially do," Kessler said of Tuberville. "That's out the window."

"I think that the rabble rousers are probably coming to the Senate," Darling bluntly added. "And I'm all for it."

What's less clear is how the Senate's cordial atmosphere will fare should the firebrands ultimately join the Senate.

Already, veteran aides said, the Senate's culture is showing signs of fraying with Mullin's antics, with John LaBombard, a former aide to Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., dubbing it "an absurd spectacle."

The comparisons to the chaotic House were hard to miss, with Mullin's challenge for a fight coinciding with allegations that McCarthy intentionally elbowed one of his detractors and another Republican calling a Democrat a "smurf" during a House hearing.

And while the Senate's ethos has survived rabble rousers in the past, LaBombard said he worries that antics that are typical in the House could seep into the Senate.

"I'm going to hope against it, but expect that we might see more of that because spectacle, unfortunately, I think gets some of these candidates and elected leaders the kind of attention they want, which is basically in clicks and engagement," he said. "I think the incentives, unfortunately, are lined up in a way that it pays sometimes for these huge lapses in decorum."

"My level of concern for the U.S. Senate in particular, in terms of extremists replacing problem solvers, is probably at its all-time high."