The Senate’s ‘Nuclear Option’: Has the Upper House Reached a New Low?

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The U.S. Senate is often referred to as the world’s greatest deliberative body. But to anyone who caught even a few minutes of Thursday night’s meltdown in the Senate, it would be easy to think otherwise.

The fight – in which Democrats invoked the ‘nuclear option’ and used a simple majority to curb the rights of the supermajority -  on one level was about procedure. But years of division and partisanship contributed to emotions and rhetoric that ran high, highlighting that the Upper House in Congress might have, to some, turned into a fun house – more about games than getting things done – more about politics than policy.

“I think members on both sides of the aisle feel like this institution has degraded into a place that is no longer a place of any deliberation at all,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said.

Even Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, whose strategic move Thursday night was described by Republicans as “heavy-handed,” admitted the dysfunction. “This has to come to an end,” Reid said of both sides. “This is not a way to legislate.”

Arcane procedural squabbles aside, the fight was really about politics, both sides casting the other has holding up legislation for political gain, and the minority party in the Senate arguing to protect more of its rights in the chamber.

“Let’s get back to legislating as we did before the mantra around here was ‘defeat Obama,’” a frustrated Reid said on the Senate floor.

Democratic aides consistently point out that Republicans have made no secret that their goal is to prevent the president from winning the 2012 election. Democratic Senate aides today say that Thursday night’s episode highlighted the extremes to which Republicans are “making good on that promise at the expense of the economy.”

“McConnell isn’t happy unless the Senate is in a state of dysfunction,” a Senate aide said today of the GOP minority leader from Kentucky, Sen. Mitch McConnell. “He got hot under the collar last night, and was grasping at procedural straws to try to tank a bipartisan bill at the 11th hour.”

Republicans argue that the majority party, the Democrats, are taking a my-way-or-the-highway approach on everything. And that is not the way the Senate is supposed to work.

“We are fundamentally turning the Senate into the House. No amendments before cloture. No motions to suspend after cloture. The minority’s out of business,”  McConnell said. “In the United States Senate, the minority is entitled to be heard. Not entitled to win, but entitled to be heard. That is the core problem here.”

A Republican Senate aide today said, “This is a remarkably short-sighted thing for Democrats to do, given that they’ll be in the minority some day.”

Members were sent home for the holiday weekend and instructed to cool off and let the air out of their tires a bit. Reid announced that he’d like to have a full caucus meeting with Democrats and Republicans to have a more civil debate about all the issues that came up in heated way in the Senate Thursday night.

As the dust settles today on Capitol Hill, the question left is whether the dynamic has fundamentally changed in the Senate. Has this poisoned the well?

The proverbial well wasn’t all that good to start off with. An ABC News-Washington Post poll released this week found that 14 percent of people approve of the job Congress is doing. “I have a hard time recalling any real bipartisan achievements from this Congress to show that it was functioning in the first place,” a Senate Democratic aide admitted today.

Asked if this latest dust-up will have ramifications, beyond the new precedent set for procedure, in the Senate’s working relationships, many said it will.

A Republican Senate aide thinks the Republicans will be less inclined to work with Reid in the next session, less inclined to give Reid cloture the next time he “fills the tree,” or cuts off additonal amendments, which is one of the many points to which Republicans objected Thursday night. “I think they learned a real lesson here: Just because you cooperate with Reid, doesn’t mean he won’t screw you,” a Republican aide said.

But Sarah Binder, an expert on Congress and legislative politics for the Brookings Institution, said that while Thursday night’s tensions boiled over, this was hardly a “revolutionary move” because such a dynamic has been in the Senate for a long time, nearly 50 years as the two parties have grown more polarized.

“Leaders long before Reid have been really frustrated with their inability to kind of control and move the Senate along toward final decisions,” Binder said. “No one likes to see the sausage getting made, but that is the reality of legislating in the Senate. It’s bared for all to see on the floor.”

Regardless of the long-term consequences of Thursday night’s procedural and political fight, one thing is for sure: Thursday night was not a good night for the Senate.