As if Congress needed any more obstacles to resolving the fiscal cliff (and the expiring continuing resolution, and the looming debt limit), a brewing fight over filibuster rules in the Senate threatens to obliterate the upper chamber's traditional comity that has greased the skids of compromise for generations. We've been covering this particular controversy over recent weeks -- and dating back years, really -- so feel free to brush up on what's at stake and why both sides are digging in their heels. Cliffs Notes version: Harry Reid is an obtuse and tyrannical majority leader, whose strong-arm tactics have compelled Republicans to threaten or launch a record number of filibusters. Now that Reid is positioning his caucus to blow up long-standing filibuster rules and taking direct aim at the minority's ability to influence the agenda, the political temperature is rising, and Republicans are ratcheting up retaliatory threats:
Democrats are threatening to change filibuster rules, in what will surely prompt a furious GOP revolt that could make those rare moments of bipartisan consensus even harder to come by during the next Congress. (Also on POLITICO: Graham: I would violate Norquist's pledge) Here’s what Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is considering: banning filibusters used to prevent debate from even starting and House-Senate conference committees from ever meeting. He also may make filibusters become actual filibusters — to force senators to carry out the nonstop, talkathon sessions. Republicans are threatening even greater retaliation if Reid uses a move rarely used by Senate majorities: changing the chamber’s precedent by 51 votes, rather than the usual 67 votes it takes to overhaul the rules. “I think the backlash will be severe,” Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the conservative firebrand, said sternly. “If you take away minority rights, which is what you’re doing because you’re an ineffective leader, you’ll destroy the place. And if you destroy the place, we’ll do what we have to do to fight back.” “It will shut down the Senate,” the incoming Senate GOP whip, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, told POLITICO. “It’s such an abuse of power.”
These admonitions remain strategically vague, allowing GOP leadership to weigh various options to combat Democrats' planned power grab. The upper chamber's blue contingent will swell to 55 seats in January, with every newly-elected Democrat pledging to vote for filibuster "reform." Republicans could exact painful political retribution by using their remaining tools to grind Senate business to a standstill. At the moment, I suspect they're employing this sort of rhetoric as a preemptive strike, aimed at wavering Democrats -- more than a few of whom are leery about signing on to simple majority rule changes. Senate sources tell me Republicans are ruminating over an array of potential responses in advance of this brawl spilling onto the front pages -- from public relations strategies to parliamentary tactics. Stay tuned for much more on this, as the battle is likely to kick into high gear early next year.
Parting thought: I find Politico's use of the descriptor "conservative firebrand" in labeling Sen. Tom Coburn to be rather interesting. The Oklahoma Senator is certainly a fiscal hawk and a principled social conservative, but he's hardly the implacable partisan that the "firebrand" moniker may imply. Indeed, Coburn has angered some conservatives by playing ball with the Gang of Six (some of whose ideas were awful), voting in favor of the president's fiscal commission recommendations (which Obama promptly ignored), and openly feuding with anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist over his famous tax pledge. My point is that in many substantial ways, Coburn is both a conservative stalwart and a compromise-oriented, dogma-questioning member of the Senate. When he's trying to forge solutions with Democrats, he's a "maverick." When he's playing hardball with Harry Reid over unacceptable liberal power plays, he's a right-wing "firebrand." Funny how this stuff plays out in the press, isn't it?
Guy Benson is Townhall.com's Political Editor. Follow him on Twitter @guypbenson. He is co-authors with Mary Katharine Ham for their new book End of Discussion: How the Left's Outrage Industry Shuts Down Debate, Manipulates Voters, and Makes America Less Free (and Fun).
Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography
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