17 Apr

Merkley still wants a Senate that works, and it’s still off in the distance

It took Jeff Merkley almost four years to get Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to move on changing the Senate’s filibuster rules for confirming nominations.

Then last month, Reid, now minority leader, announced he would retire from the Senate, and cited the change as one of his signature achievements.

“Ever since we did that, he’s been very pleased with the outcome,” said Merkley about Reid last week, as the Oregon senator was on his way to a town meeting in La Pine. “I think it’s something he will be remembered for.”

After the change, which cut back filibusters on executive branch nominations and judicial picks below the Supreme Court, a river of assistant secretaries and judges flowed through the Senate –and they might as well, since Congress wasn’t producing anything else.

Now, a year and a half after the rule change, the prospects for President Obama’s nominees seem worse than ever. With Republicans in control of the Senate, it doesn’t even take a filibuster to block a nomination; Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., can just refuse to bring it up for a vote.

The nomination of Loretta Lynch for attorney general is now in its sixth month awaiting a vote, longer than it took for the previous eight nominees for the job put together, despite Lynch having an apparent Senate majority for confirmation. In a new twist, McConnell is now holding Lynch hostage for Democratic cooperation on a human trafficking bill – which all sides support, but is now hung up on abortion language having virtually nothing to do with the point of the bill, or with Loretta Lynch.

It’s a classic example of a Senate tied up in double sailor knots, and a dysfunction being felt throughout the process. “People don’t want to be nominated,” points out Merkley, “if it mean they’re going to be held without consideration for months or even a year.”

You might as well avoid going through the FBI investigation and just go on making money.

For actual legislation – remember when Congress used to do legislation? – Merkley says the change in party control of the Senate doesn’t actually make much difference. “It doesn’t change things as much as you might think,” he insists. “In reality, we didn’t have the (60) votes (to break a filibuster), and if we passed something, the House was ready to block it.”

But the House has nothing to do with nominations, and with Merkley’s rule change, the Senate was processing them steadily. Now we’re back at roadblock, and Merkley is again looking for a way.

“I’m having lots of introductory meetings, looking for Republican partners,” he relates, notably half-hour meetings with new members. “Many of them,” he says optimistically, “especially the ones with experience in state legislatures, want to see the Senate work.

“My hope is to find some traction.”

Of course in the Senate these days, traction is as rare as a rejected campaign contribution.

Still, there’s been no Republican effort to repeal Merkley’s rule changes – which are, after all, a convenience to the majority. Merkley reports that two Republican senators, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Mike Lee of Utah, have actually expressed interest in expanding the reforms to ban filibusters on Supreme Court nominations – a change that Merkley opposes.

“The threat of the filibuster,” he says, “encourages presidents not to name Supreme Court justices from ideological extremes” – although he would require a “talking filibuster,” meaning that opponents of a vote would have to stay on the Senate floor orating to prevent it.

Expanding the reform is unlikely, but it does point to what could be the biggest Senate explosion of this Congress – if Obama gets to nominate a replacement justice to a Supreme Court with one member in her eighties and three in their late seventies. Even without the Senate’s current partisan paralysis, the situation would be challenging; the last Democratic president to send a Supreme Court nomination to a Republican Senate was Grover Cleveland in 1895.

Besides the change of rules, and the more significant change in party control, Senate Democrats face another change with Reid’s announcement that he won’t run for re-election after being Democratic leader since 2005. The job is headed for Charles Schumer of New York, whose close connections to Wall Street might seem to pose an issue for Merkley, one of the Democratic caucus’s prominent progressives.

He says no.

“I’m extremely supportive of Senator Schumer,” says Merkley. Should he become a majority leader, he will work hard to make the Senate a functioning body again.”

Because if the Senate doesn’t work , it doesn’t matter who controls it.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 4/15/15.

“I’m extremely supportive of Senator Schumer,” says Merkley. Should he become a majority leader, he will work hard to make the Senate a functioning body again.”
Because if the Senate doesn’t work , it doesn’t matter who controls it.