The Briefing, Vol. II, Issue 44

To: Our readers
From: David Freddoso

This Week: Republicans Give Up Control of Most 2015 Spending

  • Liberal threats to shut down the government prove empty
  • Conservative antics eclipse them
  • Democrats still face trouble as they enter the minority


GOP own goal: Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., had roundly denounced the government shutdown in 2013. And so when she nearly threatened to repeat it in order to kill a pro-bank provision in the CROmnibus, it was indeed amusing — and naturally, it earned her lots of praise in many of the same liberal media outlets that had been so critical of the Republican shutdown.

The idea of liberal Democrats shutting the government down seemed rather amusing for some Republican senators, too. They delivered speeches warning Democrats of the damage it would cause their party if they shut down the government. 

But Warren’s threat was an empty one, designed CIB121614-Warrenchiefly to bring Warren a bit of extra attention. Take it as you will, but it might be an early trial balloon for a 2016 campaign.   

More importantly, it was quickly eclipsed by other events. Senate conservatives stole the show with their own attempted stunt — attempted, because their own lack of procedural knowledge was the apparent cause of their failure.

It’s complicated to explain all of the details, but here’s the bottom line: Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, obtained a symbolic and badly losing vote (only 22 senators voted for it) on President Obama’s executive amnesty Saturday. In exchange, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will be able to ram through a few Obama nominations that Republicans thought they might be able to block otherwise. The worst part of it all is that Cruz and Lee could have forced the same vote to happen later without all the drama or the concession to Reid. Then again, perhaps the drama was the whole point.

What Cruz and Lee did Friday night, without warning colleagues (many of whom were on planes or already back in their home states for the weekend) was to break up a deal reached by party leaders Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell that would have suspended floor action on the Continuing Resolution/Omnibus (or CROmnibus) until Monday. The GOP leadership had hoped to use the weekend break to extend the time it controlled. The strategy was to prevent Reid from running down the clock on the debate time for a bevy of nominees Republicans had been holding up, including Vivek Murthy, Obama’s choice for Surgeon General, who is strongly opposed by the NRA but has also been called unqualified by a former surgeon general.

In the post-nuclear Senate, Republicans lacked the votes to block any of these nominations outright. But because the clock wouldn’t start until Monday, Reid would have had to keep the Senate in session right up until Christmas if he wanted to confirm all of them.

Cruz and Lee effectively let Reid start running the clock two days earlier than the agreement would have otherwise, making the task that much easier, because Democratic senators can now be counted on to stay in town long enough for the confirmations.

Reid, a master of parliamentary tactics, knew exactly what to do. He kept the Senate in session Saturday for a long series of nomination votes. They ended CIB121614-Cruzwith the passage of CROmnibus, which kicked the clock into action on the cloture motions for the nominations. The Republicans’ leverage in the lame duck — what little there had been — is now gone, in exchange for a feeble and futile gesture. The vote that Cruz and Lee forced drew only 22 votes. Had it succeeded, it would not have stopped Obama’s executive amnesty, but it would have shut down the government by killing the CROmnibus. Thus, only Republican senators truly afraid of facing primaries voted in favor.

The incident does not change the fact that Republicans were short-sighted in allowing a lame-duck vote on appropriations — something they did in the heat of election season, in hopes of avoiding a shutdown fight in September. Cruz has pointed this much out, and he is correct. Nor does it change the fact that CROmnibus does nothing about Obama’s executive action on immigration. But of course, until they take over the Senate next month, Republicans are in a much weaker position to do anything about that, and the random issuance of futile gestures against it at this point does nothing about it either way. This is one reason strategy is usually left to the generals.

The weekend’s events highlight ongoing problems for the Senate GOP leadership. Clearly, not everyone is on the same team in terms of tactics, which is far more damaging than any ideological split. The consequences in this case were bad, but relatively mild. Even so, a caucus functions best when its members are all pulling in the same direction. Reid’s caucus managed to help President Obama avoid accountability and also uncomfortable vetoes during his first six years precisely because it stuck together. Such unity can also be used in the service of good, but its value is underestimated at times.

There is a challenge in the Senate Republican caucus to see just who is the alpha male. McConnell is probably going to have to settle the CIB121614-Reidquestion, either through an agreement or through some form of legislative warfare. On the other hand, as someone who has very recently expressed great respect for the Senate as an institution — and who is expected to undo the nuclear option and other breaches of the rules by Reid — McConnell has committed himself to some degree to respect senators’ individual rights and independence. 

The crisis of caucus leadership may become easier to handle once Republicans take the Senate majority in January and Reid is in a weaker position to exploit such unforced errors. Or in the alternative, life in the majority could embolden more Republicans to challenge the leadership. Such challenges, after all, will be less harmful once Democrats are less powerful in Congress.

But for the moment, Republican disunity has strengthened Reid’s hand in the lame duck session, and the consequences will be evident as multiple nominations are confirmed in the coming week.

In the long run, this could just be a symptom of life in the minority — a caucus full of restless members who want to make something happen at any cost. This could be a problem Democrats will now have to face, since they will soon be in the minority in both the House and the Senate.

To offer an example: Many House Democrats, already in the minority, were ready to push for a government shutdown last week, as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had called for them to defeat the CROmnibus. But House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer apparently gave Democratic caucus members the decisive encouragement to vote for the bill, and 57 of them did so in the end.

Now that they will be the minority in both chambers next year, Democrats will be faced with many uncomfortable situations, perhaps not unlike the one Republicans face now. Their glee now at the Republicans’ Cruz problem could well give way to problems with their own new and less desirable situation. At some point, they could face genuine progressive revolts, not just the toothless sort that Warren threatened last week.