The post-nuclear Senate

It's no surprise that Republicans in the Senate are unhappy with the Democrats' historic decision Thursday to eliminate the filibuster for most confirmations of presidential nominees. But if the GOP were to retaliate by finding other ways to slow or sabotage action on nominations or legislation, it would be not only irresponsible but self-defeating.

Even Republicans who in the past have cooperated with Democrats are warning that Majority Leader Harry Reid's decision to trigger the so-called nuclear option will poison the atmosphere in the Senate and replace collegiality with the sort of hyper-polarization that has paralyzed the House.

It will now be impossible, some Republicans warn, to forge bipartisan support for initiatives such as the immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in June. And though they will no longer be allowed to filibuster most nominees, Republicans will be able to slow the confirmation process with holds and an insistence on adhering to the letter of Senate procedures. Finally, they might be tempted to make greater use of the filibuster where it still exists: in the approval of legislation and the confirmation of appointees to the Supreme Court.

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Senators aren't immune to W.H. Auden's observation that "those to whom evil is done do evil in return" (though "evil" is not an apt description of a reform that will make the Senate more productive and democratic). But for Senate Republicans, petulance is neither good policy nor good politics. If a senator believes that a piece of legislation would benefit the country — or that a nominee is qualified — it's irresponsible to block action out of partisan pique.

As they make their calculations, senators should remember that voters are appalled by partisan gridlock in Washington. In a Gallup Poll conducted this month, 86% of respondents said they disapproved of how Congress was handling its job. GOP senators inclined to punish their Democratic colleagues with scorched-earth obstructionism should ponder the public reaction to October's government shutdown.

Finally, Republicans might want to examine their consciences before engaging in massive retaliation. In our view, abolishing the filibuster was a desirable reform apart from whether the Republicans provoked it with their recent refusal to allow votes on three well-qualified nominees to an important federal appeals court. But the fact is that they have themselves to blame for Reid's transformation from cautious defender of Senate traditions to nuclear triggerman. They should think twice before inciting another escalation.

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