Harry Reid and Senate Democrats have thrown down the gauntlet, in no uncertain terms. If GOPers follow through with their threat to pursue the so-called “nuclear option” (a procedural maneuver that would outlaw filibusters on judicial nominations and allow them to slide through on a simple majority vote), Senate Dems will stop cooperating with all the legislative lubricants (many of which require unanimous consent) that keep the chamber operating.According to (subscription-only) Roll Call today, every Senate Democrat is on board with this strategy, and while Republicans claim to have 50 solid votes for upholding the rule change that’s at the heart of “going nuclear,” their ranks are shaky, beginning with Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter.There are several smart things about the way Reid has approached this fight.First, he’s made it clear that Democratic resistance will not extend to issues like support for U.S. troops, urgent national security matters, or the basic functioning of the federal government. This will avoid some of the parallels the media, in its two-sides-to-every-argument approach to partisan issues, would otherwise draw to Newt Gingrich’s defiant and hugely unsuccessful government shutdown of 1995.Second, Reid is treating the “nuclear option” not as a procedural matter, or even as a defiance of Senate traditions, but as part of a broader pattern of abuse of power by the Republicans who control Washington. As such, he is linking Democratic opposition to this tactic to a broader message of reform, which is exactly what Democrats ought to be doing every day of the year. If nothing else, it will help remind the roughly one-third of the population that doesn’t know who runs Congress that Republicans can no longer pose as the anti-Washington party, because they are in charge of the whole federal government.And third, in terms of the underlying dispute over the judiciary, Reid is linking Democratic resistance to a long bipartisan tradition of opposition to one-party and executive-branch control of the federal bench. I hope Democrats take every opportunity to remind people that these are lifetime appointments we are talking about, which could have a profound impact on the laws of this country for decades.Now, Democrats obviously have a Big Bertha in reserve: the GOP’s real goal, which is to pave the way for Supreme Court appointments designed to overturn Roe v. Wade, the long-delayed payoff to the cultural conservative foot-soldiers of the Republican base. As a self-proclaimed (if moderate) pro-lifer, Reid may well have special credibility in opposing an indirect assault on the right to choose, by GOPers who know they would lose any straight fight on abortion.Add it all up, and you’ve got a formula for raising the stakes on this obscure-sounding conflict, and that’s what Democrats need in order to win. Some real drama is required to overcome the media perception that this is just cloakroom maneuvering by the partisan pols in Washington, over a snoozer of an issue.Maybe the Democratic battle-plan will act as a deterrent to the deployment of the nuclear option. Some GOPers, after all, want to use the so-called Judicial Obstruction issue as a conservative fundraising and crowd-pleasing device going into the 2006 elections. And even more of them won’t be happy with the consequences of provoking a partial shutdown of the Senate, interfering with all sorts of opportunities for pork-barrelling, constituency-tending, and beast-starving (not to mention those handy little bills naming some home-state highway interchange after a big contributor or local potentate).But deterrent or not, this is a fight well worth having, and a fight that can only be won if Democrats are serious and systematic about waging it with a large reform message.
TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
Watching an intra-Democratic argument on voting rights strategy intensify in Washington, I offered some advice to both sides at New York:
There has been an underlying disagreement within the mostly Democratic coalition favoring voting rights that was nicely captured in this New York Times report on Friday:
“A quiet divide between President Biden and the leaders of the voting rights movement burst into the open on Thursday, as 150 organizations urged him to use his political mettle to push for two expansive federal voting rights bills that would combat a Republican wave of balloting restrictions … In private calls with voting rights groups and civil rights leaders, White House officials and close allies of the president have expressed confidence that it is possible to ‘out-organize voter suppression,’ according to multiple people familiar with the conversations.”
Both sides in this argument are partly wrong. Those who expect Joe Biden to force the For the People Act or the John Lewis Voting Rights Act through the Senate via some major revision in the ability to filibuster are probably expecting the impossible. Yes, perhaps if Biden personally and insistently and abrasively lobbied Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema to abandon her very consistent defense of the filibuster, up to and including encouragement of a primary challenge to her when she is up for reelection in 2024, she might decide her current and very insistent independent-maverick “branding” isn’t going to keep working for her. But Joe Manchin? He would be thrilled to get attacked by a Democratic president or Democratic advocacy groups for insisting that he won’t support voting-rights measures unless at least some Republicans support them. His state is so very red that the threat of a primary challenge to the sole remaining successful West Virginia Democrat is a laugher.
Short of a nuclear attack on West Virginia, it’s hard to identify anything Biden might do to Manchin that wouldn’t run a high risk of backfiring. And he does need Manchin on the reconciliation bills Democrats are using to get around the filibuster to enact Biden’s social and economic agenda. It’s just too bad voting-rights bills don’t qualify for reconciliation.
Yes, it is intensely frustrating that Biden cannot bring himself to come out forthrightly for filibuster reform, but it probably doesn’t matter since it is not happening unless the Democratic Senate Conference gets bigger, making senators like Manchin and Sinema irrelevant on the subject. So at some point voting-rights advocates need to focus on that goal.
At the same time, White House claims that Democrats can “out-organize voter suppression” are partially wrong as well. Yes, restrictive provisions like voter-ID requirements, limits on voting by mail, and even voter-roll purges can be countered and perhaps overcome by intensive efforts to educate and energize the voters Republicans are trying to keep from the polls. But you cannot out-organize a partisan gerrymander, or a law that lets election officials or state legislators overturn the outcome of an election after votes are cast.
Voting-rights advocates will eventually have to play the cards dealt to them by the system as it currently exists. That means refraining from too much anger aimed at Democratic pols who have little choice but to concede defeat on some legislation and concentrate on legislation (i.e., those reconciliation bills with many items vital to the people whose voting rights are also under attack) they can enact with no margin for error in the Senate and little in the House. At the same time, Biden and his staff and Democratic “pragmatists” in Congress should never for a moment be cavalier about the legislative obstacles they face in defending democracy itself. They may have to accept a tactical defeat on voting rights in this Congress. But they should never, ever, give up on making it happen later if not sooner.