It was almost as though the US Senate had entered a time machine for a brief journey back to the days before hyper-partisanship, polarization, and gridlock. This week, 98 senators got together in one room and talked and listened and tried to find a way forward.
By Washington standards, the meeting and subsequent negotiations qualified as a success. Faced with the Democratic threat of the so-called “nuclear option” to change the rules and forbid the filibustering of executive-branch appointments, Republicans agreed to confirm a number of President Obama’s long-delayed nominees. The president, for his part, withdrew two stalled nominees to the National Labor Relations Board in favor of new choices. Senate Democrats, meanwhile, backed off their rule-change threat.
In concrete terms, this doesn’t seem like a big deal and may not have much lasting impact. Unlike a 2005 agreement in which a group of senators pledged they would only filibuster judicial nominees in “extraordinary circumstances,” it doesn’t even establish a vague standard for filibuster restraint.
And yet there are at least some reasons for optimism.
For starters, both sides acknowledged some fault in the polarization of the Senate, which might just help lance the boil of bitterness that underlies Senate proceedings. Importantly, Senator Lindsey Graham, the influential South Carolina Republican, acknowledged that Republicans were wrong to block qualified nominees simply because they disagree with the mission of their agencies. So there’s some chance this episode could set a different tone.
Second, Senator John McCain, who enjoys unique national status, was back in action in the role that best suits him: Senate grown-up. When he was in town in May to campaign with Republican Senate nominee Gabriel Gomez, the Arizona senator told me he was trying to craft a new agreement to rein in filibuster abuse. Working with Democrat Charles Schumer of New York, McCain managed to forge this deal. Interestingly, he did so largely by sidestepping Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Small-minded, excessively partisan, and hobbled by home-state political worries, McConnell is a poor fit for his important post. McCain has stepped into the GOP’s leadership vacuum before. If this latest deal makes him and allies like Graham more inclined to work around McConnell, the Senate and the country will be the better for it.
Thirdly, as political scientist Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, notes, much of what Obama accomplishes in his second term will have to be done through executive action. The confirmation of more nominees will at least give him more functioning agencies for that effort.
But if there’s reason for guarded optimism on the Senate side, the House is a different story. Speaker John Boehner, facing pressure from distrustful right-wingers, has taken to invoking the “Hastert rule,” which means the House leadership won’t bring up anything that doesn’t have the support of a majority of Republicans.
As a Globe editorial pointed out this week, that means fewer than 27 percent of House members can block any action. Now, a majority of representatives — any combination of Democrats and Republicans — could force legislation to the House floor by signing a discharge petition. But the changes of that happening are slim, says former US Representative Barney Frank.
“Signing a discharge petition against your speaker has just become taboo,” says Frank. “It’s like cursing your mother.” Frank thinks the solution is electoral, saying the House will only change if the GOP loses control or if mainstream Republicans reassert themselves at the polls.
Ornstein agrees that House rejectionism is a problem without an easy solution.
It’s reinforced, he says, by the fact that the GOP’s center of gravity has shifted South, where very conservative members are safely ensconced in echo-chamber districts. Further, he notes, a significant subset of the Republican caucus puts a higher priority on prevailing legislatively on conservative causes than on broadening the GOP’s national appeal.
So the House may continue to reject even bipartisan causes unless and until Boehner can persuade his resolutely right-wing caucus that it’s in their interests to let certain legislation come to the floor, even if they themselves don’t support it.
That’s hardly an encouraging political prognosis. But it describes where national governance is — and is likely to remain for the next election cycle or two.