Republicans vow retaliation after Reid uses nuclear option in Senate

Senate Republicans vow they will retaliate for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) decision to unilaterally change the Senate’s rules Thursday without prior warning or negotiation.

Republican aides say their bosses will now be even more reluctant to allow the Senate to conduct routine business by unanimous consent, forcing Reid to gather 60 votes for even the most mundane matters.

“Reid fired a major salvo and it’s hard to imagine a return shot won’t be fired. Maybe over the weekend they’ll come up with something and try to make it less worse than it already is,” said a Senate GOP leadership aide.

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Partisan anger hit a boiling point in the chamber this week after Republicans refused to allow final passage of a China currency bill unless Democrats voted on President Obama’s jobs package, as originally drafted.

Triggering what has come to be known as the chamber’s “nuclear option,” Reid overturned Senate precedent that allowed Republicans to force votes to proceed to non-germane amendments. He did so by voting with 50 of his Democratic colleagues to overturn a ruling by the Senate parliamentarian.

The controversial procedural tactic hasn’t been used in years. In a chamber where it requires the consent of all 100 senators to dispense with the reading of a bill, changing the rules unilaterally is considered bad form.

Former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) predicted Thursday’s blow-up on the floor would have aftershocks.

“It’s obviously consequential and significant,” he said of the surprise rules change.

Eric Ueland, who served as chief of staff to former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), also predicted repercussions.

“Usually if you set off a nuke, you’re responsible for the fallout," he said. “There’s likely to be fallout here to the extent members on either side of the aisle feel this new gag rule impedes their ability to legislate. That has ramifications down the line.”

More than majority leaders before him, Reid has used a tactic known as filling the amendment tree to block Republicans from offering politically charged amendments to legislation. He has done this to protect vulnerable members of his caucus from taking tough votes.

He did it on the China currency bill that was being debate when he triggered the nuclear option. Republicans had no recourse to force a vote on Obama’s jobs package than to offer a motion to suspend the rules after the Senate had already voted to move to final passage.

By changing the rules Thursday, Reid barred Republicans from forcing votes even on motions to suspend the rules to proceed to amendments designed to send a political message.

One GOP strategist said giving the minority an opportunity to vote on these message amendments “lets partisan steam out of the kettle.”

Now that Republicans have been deprived this outlet, they warn pressure will build up, threatening an explosion.

Reid halted Senate business in the middle of consideration of the China bill Thursday night and rescheduled a return to work for Tuesday, giving angry Republicans time to cool off.

He and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senate Democrats’ messaging and strategy guru, have also proposed a bipartisan caucus meeting, to give lawmakers on both sides of the aisle chance to talk out their frustrations.

Reid said he would be happy to sit down with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in an effort to mend fences.

“I’m sure we can all cinch up our belts and, as they say in the old and new testament, gird our loins and try to do a better job of how we get along here,” Reid said.

“One of the things I want to do is have a joint caucus,” he said. “I want to have one with Democratic senators and Republican senators and at that time we can all talk about some of the frustrations we all have.”

McConnell has yet to respond to the overture.

Reid and McConnell entered into a gentlemen’s agreement at the beginning of the year to allow the Senate’s business to proceed more smoothly.

Reid promised to give Republicans opportunities to offer amendments, and McConnell pledged not to filibuster motions to proceed to legislation, unless the legislation is highly controversial.

Schumer and Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) also worked out an agreement to allow hundreds of mid-level administration nominees to be appointed without Senate confirmation.

Senate aides say the gentlemen’s agreement and spirit of bipartisan cooperation that existed in January are now dead. 

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Schumer admits things haven’t worked out as planned.

“The senator from Tennessee and I talked about that frustration at the beginning of this session in an attempt [to work it out],” he said. “Obviously it hasn’t worked terribly well.”

A Senate Democratic aide said McConnell is responsible for the collapse of the gentlemen’s agreement.

The aide accused McConnell of acting like a sore loser by trying to force a vote on Obama’s jobs package after the Senate already voted to move to final passage of the China bill.

"McConnell isn't happy unless the Senate is in a state of dysfunction. It personally bothered him this week that members on his side bucked him and voted to cut off a filibuster on a bipartisan bill so it could pass the Senate. He got hot under the collar [Thursday] and was grasping at procedural straws to try to tank a bipartisan bill at the eleventh hour,” said the aide.  

Dorgan said Thursday’s floor fight is a sign of the collapse of bipartisan cooperation in the Senate.

“It’s another step in the confrontation that exists almost constantly now. Not only is there not agreement on policy, there’s not agreement on the rules,” he said. “It’s another demonstration the system isn’t working at all.”

“Underlying it all, there’s no cooperation on anything,” he added. “How are we going to show American people that we’re working on their problems?”