I think if Robert Byrd had still been alive and serving in the Senate, the adoption of the nuclear option would have failed.
Say what you want to about the old Kluxer, he revered Senate tradition and history. But those traditions that Byrd held dear have now been trampled in the dust by a new breed of Democratic Senator; contemptuous of minority rights, extremist in their politics, and disdainful of their own leadership.
Call them the Elizabeth Warren Wing of the Democratic Party. And their greatest triumph was the destruction of the filibuster. What’s worse, they’re not finished.
“The Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party definitely are showing that they have growing influence in the caucus, and in government in general,” said Matt Wall of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a group that works to promote progressive candidates and issues in Democratic primaries. On Friday, Warren circulated a fundraising letter to supporters on behalf of Merkley and Udall, thanking them for their role in changing the rule. Both men face reelection in 2014.
The changing Democratic tactics may reflect a generational shift occurring in the Senate. It’s almost certain that by the start of the next Congress in 2015, more than half of the Democratic caucus will have been elected since 2008, when gridlock reached new heights. But nine of the new Senate Democrats are former Congress members, all of whom served at least part of their time under Republican majorities. Three were governors who served with Republican legislatures.
The shift among Democrats has at times confounded Republicans, particularly on the filibuster issue. Aides to Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), the third-longest-serving Republican, said they had felt that Reid’s most recent moves telegraphing the nuclear option were a bluff.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Thursday railed against the actions of “uninitiated newcomers in the Democratic caucus,” reminding them they had never served in the minority in the Senate. Those who have a longer memory “should know better,” he added.
Six-term Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan was the only Democrat to speak out against his party’s move, citing the late institutionalist Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and Robert C. Byrd in arguing against tinkering with long-standing rules.
“Before we discard the uniqueness of this great institution, let us use the current rules and precedents of the Senate to end the abuse of the filibuster,” said Levin, who will retire after next year.
But those pushing for the rule change won over one Democratic stalwart.
“There are many of us that really wanted to keep things the way they were, because that’s the way they were,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). “One thing I know: that you learn from history. And right now we can’t let the present be the future. So you’ve got to make the change, or this becomes a body that doesn’t mutate.”
Levin is correct. The carefully built structures in the Senate that put a brake on the passions of the people’s House — not to mention a grasping executive branch — are now history. The Senate is now just another legislative body — a pale echo of the House and little more than a rubber stamp for whatever schemes and schemers the president wishes to inflict on the American people.
The new Democrats may, indeed, rue the day they voted for the nuclear option. But by the time they do, it’s an open question how much of the “old Senate” will still be worth saving.