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Talk of 'nuclear option' prompts GOP backlash

Associated Press

By all indications, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is serious about pursuing the so-called "nuclear option," ending filibusters of administration nominees in the upper chamber.

To pull off the procedural tactic, Reid would need near-unanimous support from his fellow Senate Democrats, and at this point, he doesn't have it. Just yesterday, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who is retiring next year, reiterated his opposition to the "nuclear option," telling TPM his position "won't change."

But Reid doesn't just have his own members to worry about; he's also hearing from Senate Republicans, who've begun making threats in the hopes of forcing Democrats to back down.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a former member of the GOP leadership close to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), has assembled an agenda Republicans would pursue with the nuclear option if they retake control of the upper chamber.

It includes repealing the 2010 Affordable Care Act, converting all federal education spending into school vouchers and scholarships to middle-income and low-income children, opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling and repealing the estate tax.

"Sen. Reid is an able and experienced leader. He knows that if Democrats figure out a way to do anything they want with 51 votes, Republicans can figure that out too. And if we're in charge, we'll do it.

For his part, McConnell added on the Senate floor, "There's not a doubt in my mind that if the majority breaks the rules of the Senate to change the rules of the Senate with regard to nominations, the next majority will do it for everything."

Got that? Democrats are considering a plan to allow majority rule on judicial nominees and Senate-confirmed administration positions, including the cabinet. Republicans are now arguing that if Dems pursue this, when the GOP is in the majority, they'll allow majority rule on literally everything, including taking affordable health care coverage away from tens of millions of Americans.

As threats go, McConnell's efforts at intimidation fall short for a few specific reasons.

First, I find it rather amusing to hear experienced lawmakers talk about a majority-rule Senate as if it would be shocking and unprecedented. It's all quite silly, really -- the Senate was designed to be a majority-rule institution in which bills and nominations would be brought to the floor and members would register a "yea" or a "nay." If the former outnumbered the latter, the bill or nomination would be approved, and the chamber operated this way for nearly two centuries.

McConnell and Alexander, whether they understand this or not, are effectively arguing, "Watch it, Democrats, or we'll return the Senate to the way it used to function before the era of endless obstructionism and intractable gridlock! And you don't want that to happen!"

Second, there's no guarantee that Republicans, the moment they're back in the majority, won't do this anyway. People forget this, but the "nuclear option" was a GOP idea in 2005. The next time there's a Republican White House and a Republican-led Senate, what's to stop the party from eliminating filibusters and governing as they please? Nothing, really.

And third, McConnell and Senate GOP leaders have already vowed to use the reconciliation process to do all sorts of things, including repealing the Affordable Care Act, the next time Republicans are in control, regardless of the state of filibuster rules.

As Jon Chait asked, "That's your No. 1 threat? 'If you change the rules, I'll do exactly what I told everybody I was planning to do anyway'?"

It's my understanding that there are a handful of Senate Democrats who remain on the fence when it comes to changing the rules and pulling the trigger on the "nuclear option" -- enough to sway the outcome in the event of a floor fight. I'm not sure what it'll take to sway them one way or the other, but if they're rattled by Republican chest-thumping, they're not paying close enough attention.