In his State of the Union address last week, President Obama issued the GOP a challenge.
"If the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town--a super-majority--then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well," he said. "Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it's not leadership."
Senate Republicans answered on Monday: They'll stick with the short-term politics, thank you.
In a particularly pugnacious move, the GOP insisted Monday evening on a 60-vote threshold for a fairly middle-of-the-road nominee to be solicitor general at the Department of Labor. To be sure, Patricia Smith, the New York State Labor Commissioner, wouldn't be nominated by a Republican president and has the support of the AFL-CIO. But she also has the backing of New York business groups and local Chambers of Commerce, as well as GOP members of the New York House delegation.
Still, for Senate Republicans, she might as well have been Karl Marx and Van Jones wrapped into one.
Every Republican who showed up voted to sustain a filibuster against her nomination. As a result, it took every member of the Democratic caucus to end the filibuster, on a 60-32 vote. In a normal legislative body, a 2-1 vote is a rout. In today's Senate, it's a squeaker.
And when Scott Brown takes his newly-won Senate seat, the GOP will have the votes it needs to block nominees like Patricia Smith.
"They're going to have to decide what they're going to do. Brown will be here shortly and they'll hold the [power] on whether or not we have people in place to make the country work," said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).
But filibustering a nominee like Smith for a position most people have never heard of in a department that is rarely in the news still requires some justification. After all, most of the GOP senators have been around long enough that they served during a time when such a filibuster would be unimaginable.
So they called Smith a liar.
Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wy.), the ranking Republican on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, led the pack, decrying her "lack of candor" and cited "discrepancies in her testimony." The issue -- which was really not, of course, the issue -- centered on a small pilot program in New York called Wage Watch, which aims to educate workers about the minimum wage is and when they are entitled to overtime. Republicans, during committee hearings, insisted that it was a Big Labor plot, but Smith said the idea had been generated within her office. It was later shown that apparently a labor representative had suggested it to an employee, who then suggested it to Smith.
The GOP also lambasted Smith for categorizing the pilot program as "educational" rather than "enforcement." Democrats pointed out that the distinction was an irrelevant one: The purpose of the education was to improve enforcement efforts.
The pilot program cost $6,000. Smith manages some 4,000 employees and oversees an $11 billion annual budget.
Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) spoke against her on the Senate floor, saying he backed the filibuster on Smith's account of her "blatantly and intentionally deceiving a committee of this body."
That in spite of the fact that his Republican colleague Enzi, in a letter to President Obama, said he had "no reason to believe" Smith intentionally misled the committee.
"I reluctantly rise to oppose moving forward with the nomination of Patricia Smith," Isakson said. "I don't do so easily or happily because I believe the President of the United States has the right to make appointments, and I think within reason those appointments should be confirmed. The question before the Senate in this nomination is not whether wage or hour laws should be enforced. They should be. The question is not whether Ms. Smith has done a good job in New York State, because Republicans and Democrats says that she has. The question is whether the Senate will tolerate a nominee blatantly and intentionally deceiving a committee of this body. My guess is the Democratic body would not have stood for it under the previous administration. Ms. Smith has been evasive in response to numerous questions from members of the committee specifically with regard to a program called Wage Watch."
If presidential nominees were routinely filibustered for evasive answers, no president would ever be able to assemble a government. But too closely examining the GOP reasoning misses the point.
"Their view is if they can defeat Obama in every way imaginable, they'll come up in the midterm election and say, 'Hey, he hasn't accomplished anything,'" said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). "Unfortunately, they've been succeeding too well."
HuffPost spoke to three GOP senators after the vote and two -- Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah) and Jeff Sessions (Ala.) -- said they weren't familiar enough with her nomination say why she deserved to be filibustered, but both voted with leadership anyway. (Sessions said he was aware there were "strong feelings" among Republicans on the committee.)
Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), meanwhile, said that Smith deserved to be blocked and that the tactic won't be given up once the GOP has 41 votes. "We did a very good research job and feel that she wasn't qualified for the job. So it wasn't run of the mill," he said. "I suspect that [going forward] if we have a real problem with someone --- genuine - then we'll ask for cloture...If somebody really is, in the opinion of a lot of people, not qualified for the job, then the rules provide that we can ask for cloture to proceed."
Democrats said after the vote that it's not difficult for the GOP to stand in the way because, along with the short-term political benefit, Republicans also oppose the long-term goals of the Department of Labor.
Smith was nominated to be "the top lawyer for workers in America," Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) told HuffPost. "It's one more example of Republicans undercutting the middle class."
Without Brown in the Senate, Smith is now one of the lucky ones, having only waiting nine months after being nominated.
"I'm sorry it took so long," Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chair of the labor committee, told Smith just off the Senate floor after the vote.
"You worked really hard, thank you," said Smith, embracing Harkin.
"I say this in front of my press people here," said Harkin, acknowledging the reporters looking on. "This is not about Tricia Smith. This is not about Craig Becker, who's coming up. What this really is all about, stripped to its essentials, is the Republicans are afraid that the Department of Labor is going to become the Department of Labor, that it's actually going to fulfill its roll in protecting workers in this country. That's the big fear."
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