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Politics & Government

Senate Rules Change Could Mean More Political Rancor


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. Is Washington headed for smoother operation, or more dysfunction than ever? Democrats made big changes to the rules of the U.S. Senate yesterday. The changes kill the ability of the minority - the Republicans - to filibuster most presidential nominations.

Senate leaders say this will restore function to the chamber. Others say it will make politics even more rancorous. We'll hear the views of our regular political commentators after this report from NPR's Ailsa Chang.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Senate Republican leaders ominously warn their friends on the other side of the aisle they'd regret the maneuver, and sooner than they think. So what would that look like? Could an already polarized body become even more bitterly divided? Gregory Wawro, of Columbia University, says yes, that is absolutely what will happen.

GREGORY WAWRO: When you do something to infringe on the rights of minority, there is real blowback. I think that at least in the short term, I think the Republicans will be very averse to cooperating with Democrats.

CHANG: The question now is, what form will the reprisals take? Just around the corner is a deadline to agree on a budget; but there were slim hopes, anyway, of arriving at any real compromise on taxing and spending. In fact, party politics are so divisive now, maybe Democrats had nothing to lose when they pulled their big move yesterday.

That's what Francis Lee, of the University of Maryland, thinks. And that's why she says Republican threats of retaliation now just don't carry much weight.

FRANCIS LEE: The fact they had such little hope for accomplishing anything already made it much harder for Republicans to wield those threats effectively; to be able to say, well, if you do this, then we won't be able to make X, Y and Z happen when prospects for X, Y and Z were already so low.

CHANG: And Lee says that's precisely why the Democrats' decision yesterday to destroy the filibuster for most nominations was almost inevitable. The Senate had already become a dysfunctional place where the filibuster had evolved into a routine minority veto on the will of the majority. But without the filibuster, Republican Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, says the effect on the judiciary will be dramatic.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: The party in power is going to be pushed by base folks to pick the most partisan judge, probably, available.

CHANG: But Lee says what Graham fails to see is that the base has put a lot of pressure on Republicans, too. She says it got to a point where it was no longer enough to vote no on a nominee. The base clamored for Republicans to procedurally block the process beforehand as well. Now, Republicans have an escape hatch.

LEE: Can I have this many vacancies in the executive branch and the judicial branch? But they're under a lot of political pressure that they didn't used to experience. So this gives them a way out as well. They can vote no, but the judicial branch will get staffed.

CHANG: Of course, there are still ways for Republicans to make life miserable for the majority. For example, even after Democrats win a vote to limit debate on a nominee, there are still technically 30 hours of debate allowed. Gregory Wawro says the minority can still force the majority to consume all of that time.

WAWRO: Today's Senate is not a place where Senators have a lot of free time; and so forcing the Senate to stay in session for those 30 hours, that can cause a lot of headaches for the majority.

CHANG: So nominations will still get through, but Republicans could make Democrats suffer for it, each and every time.

Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.