The obstruction threats against Lew—and to a much greater extent, against Defense Secretary-designate Chuck Hagel—are making their lives simpler. Reformist senators like Merkley are being helped from the outside by a constellation of liberal groups. The Democracy Initiative, 30-odd organs of the left, has been lobbying Democrats for Senate reform. Fix the Senate Now, a slightly older labor-environmental posse, has spent two years lobbying on nothing but this.
“We’ve been saying since the beginning that that this isn’t your father’s Republican caucus,” says Shane Larson, legislative director for Communication Workers of America, describing this week’s Fix the Senate pitch. “When they immediately oppose Chuck Hagel or Jack Lew, it helps cure people of the notion that maybe you could get to 67 votes for Levin-McCain. No. These guys have come in with a stated goal, and it’s all about stopping the government, period.”
As they make that argument, the opposition to Hagel is even more useful than the attack on Lew. Hagel might not have kept many friends in his own caucus, but he’s been reintroduced to the American public as a former Republican senator. His loudest opponents in the Senate, so far, have been Texas Sen. John Cornyn (“Hagel wants us to be softer on the Iranians”) and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (“an in your face nomination of the president to all of us who are supportive of Israel”). Both of them are up for re-election in 2014. Democrats have watched other senators, like Utah’s Orrin Hatch, tack right to appease the party’s base.
“It's only really now dawning on folks what the strategy is,” Merkley said. “If we can turn back the clock to the Susan Rice nomination, a lot people said: ‘Oh, that's just maneuvering by Republicans to get John Kerry instead and give Scott Brown a chance to come back here.’ With Jack Lew and Chuck Hagel, it becomes so much more apparent that this wasn't a strategy aimed at one Senate seat.”
The reformers want their fellow Democrats to game that out. Who replaces Hilda Solis at Labor? Do they want a fight over that? What happens if the president gets to pick a new Supreme Court justice? Do Republicans threaten to filibuster her, too? And what about the endless backlog of lower-court judges? Sure, Democrats relied on the filibuster to block plenty of George W. Bush’s nominees. They’d still be able to do that to some future Republican president. They’d just need to stand around and talk, and their willingness to consider that rises every time a Jeff Sessions talks about putting another no-effort hold on a top nominee.
“If they want more debate on Chuck Hagel at Defense or Jack Lew at Treasury, then let them talk through the weekend,” Merkley said. “If this former, conservative colleague is so outrageous … they can expend the energy and really filibuster him. Hopefully, then, we’d be able to at least have transparency.”