Senate's Nuclear Option Raises Stakes For 2014

11/22/2013 01:35 pm ET | Updated Nov 22, 2013

WASHINGTON -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made one party in the Senate significantly more powerful when he ended filibusters on presidential appointments Thursday -- and instantly elevated the importance of the 2014 Senate elections.

"It raises the stakes," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has often remarked that "elections have consequences."

The one-time GOP presidential nominee also admitted that the ability Reid exercised to break the Republican blockade of President Barack Obama's nominees was one of those consequences.

"I'm afraid so," McCain said.

Led by the Nevada Democrat, the Senate voted 52-48 Thursday to wield the "nuclear option," eliminating the ability of the Senate minority to filibuster executive branch nominees and any judgeship below the Supreme Court by changing the requirements for passage to a simple majority vote. And now, thanks to Reid's power move, the stakes for 2014 include control of a Senate that can either be a stronger aid to Obama in the furtherance of his agenda or, if the GOP can take over, an even more effective check on the executive's ambitions.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) suggested just that immediately after Thursday's vote to change the rules, announcing that he intended to strike back at the polls next fall.

"The solution to this problem is at the ballot box," McConnell rather pointedly told reporters on Capitol Hill. "I look forward to having a great election in November 2014."

Republicans need to win six seats next fall to take over the upper chamber, and the map remains a tough one for Democrats, who have to defend 21 seats, compared to just 14 for the GOP. And seven of those Democratic seats are in states that lean Republican, with a couple more in swing states.

McConnell has said before that he would punish Democrats for a "nuclear" option rules change by carrying the option further, also subjecting passage of legislation to simple majority votes. Yet he did not say Thursday what he would do if he wins control of the Senate.

McCain suggested retribution was a distinct possibility."There's going to be a lot of anger," McCain said. "What happens in January 2015, if Republicans are in the majority? "

Asked what would happen, McCain offered an energetic snort, accidentally knocking a reporter's recorder to the ground. "It depends on how angry people are. It depends on how badly [Democrats] abuse us," said McCain, who had tried a day earlier to talk Reid out of going nuclear. "There may be Republicans who say, 'They did it to us, so let's do it to them.'"

Reid professed he was not worried about any possible retaliation from McConnell.

"Let him do it. As I said, the country did pretty damn well for 140 years," Reid said in a news conference with other Democrats, referring to the period of Senate history before there was a formal filibuster rule in 1917. "Let him do whatever he wants."

"We much prefer the risk of up-or-down votes and majority rule than the risk of continued total obstruction," added Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) "That's the bottom line, no matter who's in power."

While Reid and McCain both appreciated how Thursday's move raised the stakes of controlling the Senate, neither was convinced Senate procedures would be a resonant election issue.

"This won't be much of a story in a week or two," Reid said.

"I'd love to tell you that the American people are now aroused by the rules change in the Senate. But they're probably not," McCain said, noting that the GOP would stick with the attack lines that have been on display of late. "So our focus is going to be on Obamacare."

Campaign operatives agreed that the specifics of altering the Senate rules wouldn't drive voters, but said the new dynamic would be a fresh part of the argument.

"There's absolutely a tremendous amount at stake in 2014," said the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's Matt Canter. "The Koch brothers and a bunch of special interest billionaires are trying to elect a bunch of tea party senators just like [Texas Sen.] Ted Cruz in states across the country. A tea party majority in the United States Senate would be a disaster -- for our economy, for women's health, our investments in the future or education and all the issues we care about," he said.

A filibuster-free Senate would significantly hamper the ability of the minority to check a tea party-dominated majority -- a factor that would be of even greater importance two years later if the GOP could retake the White House in 2016.

"Does it raise the stakes? Sure," said Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "But at this point it's like building another floor on top of the Empire State Building. The stakes were already pretty damn high with the Obamacare disaster, a ho-hum economy, $17 trillion in debt, and the difference between a checkmated Barack Obama versus one whose party controls Washington."

He added that it was another argument to impeach the trustworthiness of Democrats, especially incumbents who were in office in 2005 when Democrats opposed a similar move by then-Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

"Vulnerable Democrats have a massive credibility problem," Dayspring said. "Whether it's Obamacare, taxes, spending, balanced budgets, immigration, the Second Amendment or now the nuclear option -- they've been on both sides of so many issues and made promises that they've since broken," he said. "A lack of credibility and competence will be a theme that dogs these Democrats."

Dayspring singled out Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu, noting that she was one of a gang of 14 in 2005, along with McCain, who talked Frist out of using the nuclear option.

But Landrieu said McConnell had only himself to blame for bringing about an atomic rules retaliation, because he employed what she described as a nakedly political strategy of obstruction designed to hurt Obama. And she warned that McConnell -- the only incumbent seriously challenged by Democrats next year -- may be the one to suffer at the polls.

"We changed the rules so that we could get the Senate back working, and because the Senate has virtually been at a dead stop," Landrieu told HuffPost. "It started when Mitch McConnell stood up on the Senate floor, and you all can go back and look at the day -- the first leader I have -- and I've been here almost 20 years -- the first leader of any party I've ever in my life heard say that his job was not to represent the people of Kentucky, it was not to represent the people of the United States, but it was to defeat President Obama in everything he tried.

"That kind of leadership is leadership we need to get rid of immediately," Landrieu said. "And I hope the people of Kentucky will take me up on that challenge."

Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.

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