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Senate Democrats go nuclear to preserve majority rule [Commentary]

The old axiom, be careful what you wish for because you may get it, is back in play here with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's successful change in Senate rules dealing with that old albatross, the filibuster.

After five years of enduring Republican obstructionism against President Barack Obama's executive and judicial appointments in the Senate, and general GOP naysaying in the House, Senator Reid has pulled the trigger on the so-called nuclear option. Henceforth, a simple majority in the Senate will be able to cut off debate on such nominations, though not on legislation.

On the basis of another axiom, that turnaround is fair play, the Senate Democrats have merely done what their Republican counterparts threatened during the time of previous GOP control. Thus, this time it's Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warning darkly of the unintended consequences of killing off minority roadblocks when the Senate Democrats find themselves in the minority again.

But with President Obama having only three more three years in the Oval Office to achieve goals sharply impeded by five years of partisan obstruction, it's a gamble he and Senator Reid obviously are willing to take. Frustration, as well as belief in majority rule, no doubt was at play in the decision.

Throughout Mr. Obama's first term and into the second, the Republican congressional leadership undermined him at virtually every turn, starting with Mr. McConnell's stated objective of making him a one-term president.

After failing at that goal last November, the Republicans in Congress only dug in more deeply. Unable to repeal Obamacare, the congressional Republicans regrouped and rallied around a goal of defunding the president's signature health-care insurance reform instead.

They proceeded to ride that horse to their own political dead end in the 16-day government shutdown, for which they took the bulk of the blame. Now, thanks to the incredible bumbling of the health care enrollment process, they have been given a reprieve on their get-Obama crusade.

Mr. Reid's rules change is a makeshift barricade to further obstructionism by the Senate minority, reigniting an old argument over the limits on majority power in the Senate. Among other things, the change greatly heightens the focus and significance of the midterm congressional elections next November.

It is now more essential to Mr. Obama that the Democrats retain the Senate in 2014 than the longer-shot quest of wresting control of the House from the pointedly obstructionist Republican majority there.

Mr. Reid's decision to play hardball over the Senate rules on executive and judicial nominations is in keeping with Mr. Obama's stiffened backbone against the recent Republicans' willingness to allow the government shutdown over the budget and the debt ceiling issues.

With yet another round of those battles in the offing, the president appears ready to stake his remaining three years in office on taking head-on the Republican obstructionism that thwarted him through most of his first term. At the same time, the country is certain to hear more from the opposition party about the perils of majority rule, even as it strives in the 2014 elections to achieve a majority in the Senate.

In this heightened partisan climate, the nastiness of politics in Washington seems certain to increase as well. Mr. Obama may still attempt to convey a willingness to find common ground with a Republican congressional leadership in the grip of its most vehement anti-Obama elements. But turning the other cheek has never gotten him anywhere.

As for his GOP critics, the fiasco of the Obamacare enrollment kickoff has been a political life preserver. The mismanagement enables them to argue that this is no time to extend more power to the majority while eroding the ability of the minority to protect its interests.

Senator Reid's bold use of the nuclear option to break the Senate logjam over executive and judicial nominations only adds fuel to the partisan flames. It offers the Republicans a rallying point to stiffen their forces for the remaining battles ahead that will determine history's judgment on the Obama presidency.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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