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No Way Out

Salon has a good "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Nuclear Option" article for those who don't have the time or patience to read Parts I-XV of KagroX's "Notes on the Nuclear Option" at The Next Hurrah.

It's well done, but I think on one point, it's a little too sanguine about the situation Senator Frist has placed himself in:

So with the stars lined up like this, maybe Frist wins either way. If he calls for a vote on the nuclear option and wins, he will have brought home a victory for the religious right. If he calls for a vote and loses, he will have gone down fighting. And God knows, the religious right loves a martyr.

I don't think it's that easy. It seems pretty likely that Frist does not have the votes for the Nuclear Option. If he did, he would have called for the vote this week. (And I'm guessing that he's down one more vote now, because Senator Chaffee will claim that by voting with Voinovich to let the Bolton nomination go to the floor without a recommendation, he gets credit for voting for Bolton and therefore should be free to vote his own mind on the Nuke option. That kind of calculus is what's going on when you see a Republican senator "deliberating.")

If Frist calls the vote and loses, at the very least he cannot continue to function as Republican leader of the Senate. He will have forced a number of Senators to vote against their own instincts and institutional values. Some of those Senators might be willing to vote for the option if it moves their judges forward and strengthens their president, but they're not willing to vote for it and lose. They'll be angry. And then there will be the Republicans who vote against it: they will certainly face calls, stirred up by Frist himself, for retribution -- primary challenges, removal from committees, etc. To function as leader, Frist will have to reassure them that he will discourage retribution. But if he does so, he will lose the support of the religious right that he stirred up. He's stuck.

Can he call the vote, lose, and immediately step down as majority leader in favor of Senator Mitch McConnell? I think that's the only option, but that makes you a disgraced former party leader, not a front-runner for the 2008 Republican nomination.

I'm grateful every day that I'm not Bill Frist, but today more than usual.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on May 12, 2005 | Permalink


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Presumably he'll call for a vote the minute he gets a favorable count, right?

Posted by: praktike | May 12, 2005 3:37:57 PM

Do you think Frist is smart enough to realize this? It is a serious question. (He isnot experienced enough.) If he is not, and he loses, he will try to continue on as leader as if nothing happened. He will be in that position until his colleagues literally push him out the leader's door--an unseemly affair.


Posted by: charles | May 12, 2005 3:46:12 PM

Frist may not be Senate-smart enough to realize the implications on his own, but somebody smarter will surely bring it to his attention.

Posted by: RonK, Seattle | May 12, 2005 4:10:09 PM

"If Frist calls the vote and loses, at the very least he cannot continue to function as Republican leader of the Senate."

I think Frist is likely to get his 50 votes, but if he doesn't, I don't think it will mean the end of his tenure as leader by any means.

I think you fundamentally misunderstand where power lies in the Republican Congressional caucus.

"To function as leader, Frist will have to reassure them that he will discourage retribution."

Again, I think you miss the relevant calculus here.

Posted by: Petey | May 12, 2005 4:29:03 PM

I'm happy to be educated. What is the relevant calculus?

Posted by: Mark Schmitt | May 12, 2005 4:30:45 PM

I don't know whether it's (a lack of) Senate smarts, or just the way these kinds of Republicans work, but I don't see Frist stepping down if he loses. I think it'd be par for the course. Not only do these guys not accept losses, they also refuse to recognize them when they happen.

Both Frist and DeLay will have to be physically ejected. There are, however, potential usurpers waiting in the wings for both. And both draw power (or have the potential to do so) from the same centers as the men they'll replace.

Posted by: Kagro X | May 12, 2005 4:50:44 PM

"What is the relevant calculus?"

Disjointed thoughts before I head out the door...

Well, for one, at least until November 2006 goes down, Republican Senators are going to fear primaries more than general elections.

But more to the point, prior to Frist, when was the last time the WH was able to impose a Majority Leader on the Senate? (I'd guess this has happened before, but it's certainly not within my historical purview.) Think about how contrary this state of affairs is from traditional Senatorial power structures.

In the absence of a rebuke from the electorate, I just don't see the kind of breaking of GOP ranks that would be necessary to imperil Frist's position. Due to the extraordinary nature of the nuclear option, I can see Frist losing that vote, but I can't see the mechanics of how the GOP caucus voting 49 - 6 with Frist turns into an actual rebellion. After a failed nuclear option vote, even GOP moderates are still impelled back to the leader and back to the WH.

And tangentially, I don't think Frist is as crazy and screwed as everyone seems to assume. He's always (realistically) been running for the VP slot instead of the top slot. And win or lose, I think this fight helps him get there, unless (big caveat) it ends up making him too radioactive among the general public.

Posted by: Petey | May 12, 2005 4:54:26 PM

Thanks, Petey. We're both being very speculative here, but I've always thought that the fact Frist was imposed by the White House was a weakness, not a strength. He's not ruling from a position of earned legitimacy. And he's got two would-be leaders lurking around him, in Lott and McConnell, both happy to see him undermined.

It's not the end of the world to lose a vote, but this is different. He's asking them to put themselves very far out there, and you can't do that and lose casually.

I agree that Frist is not crazy, although I don't know on what basis you say he's running for VP. It doesn't really matter. He made a relatively small mistake -- which was to cast his lot with an outside group before he was sure what his internal position was in the Senate -- that happens to have played out in a way that puts him in a bind. If he weren't the leader, it would be no big deal at all.

Posted by: Mark Schmitt | May 12, 2005 5:04:36 PM

isn't it possible that Frist is getting set up by Lott and/or McConnell here?

Posted by: praktike | May 12, 2005 5:14:32 PM


The lefty bloggers are doing a superb job educating us about important issues. For example, Josh Marshall is the place to go for information about social security. Steve Clemons has kept us well informed and led the charge against Bolton.

Any chance you might take on the Nuclear Option? It is very clear that you understand the Byzantine ways of Congress, and I, for one, would love to have an insider offering insight as this issue unfolds.

Posted by: susan | May 12, 2005 5:25:55 PM

Don't you think that Voinovich's actions re: Bolton are a watershed moment?
Yes, he agreed to let Bolton go to the floor, but for principles, and not out of support; moreover, he promises to vote against him on the floor.
I think what you're getting at is that the White House can't run roughshod over the Senate 100% of the time, which is what they are attempting to do this year. Voinovich is rebelling; soon, others will follow.

Posted by: marky | May 12, 2005 6:11:40 PM

I don't know that it's a watershed, Marky. Voinovich is very safe in his state - his constituents like him a lot for his independence and conscience (DEMOCRATS TAKE NOTE!). No doubt the wave will break at some point, but I don't see Voinovich's move as the trigger or manifestation. I'd love to be wrong, believe me, but I don't think this is it. The Nuclear option, on the other hand....

Posted by: jonnybutter | May 12, 2005 9:57:47 PM

I may not be chopped liver, but apparently I go nicely on a cracker!

Posted by: Kagro X | May 12, 2005 11:14:26 PM

I may not be chopped liver, but apparently I go nicely on a cracker!


On the other hand, maybe you're right, Marky. Not only would I not want to be Frist right now, but I certainly wouldn't want to be Lincoln Chafee either. Did you see his face in that hearing today? For once, a hotshot Washington reporter (Millbank) didn't take untoward poetic licence when he said that Chaffe looked like he was about to cry.

(It was hilarious to see Chaffe's and Coleman's attempts to seem insouciant - devil-may-care - while draining their water glasses during Biden's tirade; when Senators look like bigger assholes than reporters (just like in the old days), maybe it IS some sort of watershed event.)

Posted by: jonnybutter | May 13, 2005 2:26:19 AM

Voinovich came under attack from the Rove's attack dogs soon after his first comments on Bolton caused the delay in voting. My guess is that he resented the hell out of that, and it has boomeranged on Rove.

Posted by: Bob H | May 13, 2005 7:27:23 AM

From the Republican Base's perspective, the longer Frist waits for this vote, the more it looks like he's the problem. This issue is more important than any other issue and many want to see, win or lose, who the spineless, wanna be loved by the media, panty-wastes republicans are. There will be hell to pay for those that vote against stopping the fillibuster and hell will be payed in spades if there aren't enough votes.

This is a litmus test and I for one will be sending money to every single challenger of every single republican that fails it. I don't care if they're republicans in the primary or democrats in the general. If someone is running against one of these guys, they're getting paid. Any republican that fails to see this as a central issue to their base has absolutely no business calling themselves a republican and even less business calling themselves a leader.

(That's what Frist is facing)

Posted by: Lloyd | May 13, 2005 7:51:53 AM

I may not be chopped liver, but apparently I go nicely on a cracker!


What? I'll tell you what. It has to do with this:

Any chance you might take on the Nuclear Option? It is very clear that you understand the Byzantine ways of Congress, and I, for one, would love to have an insider offering insight as this issue unfolds.

Mark very kindly points out right at the top of the post that I've done a -- what, 20? 25? -- part series on the intricacies of the nuclear option at The Next Hurrah.

So although I'd like to think I'm not chopped liver, I'm apparently mistaken for something quite like it.

Posted by: Kagro X | May 13, 2005 11:20:03 AM

Sorry Kagro, I didn't notice that. I'm going to TNH right now.

Posted by: jonnybutter | May 13, 2005 1:13:17 PM

Perhaps Mark or Kagro can answer this for me:
Wasn't Voinovich's statement about his committee vote on Bolton a clear signal of support for the nuclear option? As I heard him, he declared, "this guy's terrible, but the President's nominees deserve up-or-down votes on the Senate floor." To me, that sounds as though he's not even talking about Bolton anymore - he's trying to set himself up as an independent-minded senator who will take a "principled, consistent" position in favor of the nuclear option and invites others to do likewise. Thus, I thought odds for the nuclear option looked better, not worse, by the end of the day. Thoughts?

Posted by: The Navigator | May 13, 2005 2:06:39 PM

"Yes, he agreed to let Bolton go to the floor, but for principles, and not out of support; moreover, he promises to vote against him on the floor. "

Posted by: marky

As far as I've heard, all that Bolton needs on the Senate floor is a simple majority (with Cheney breaking a tie). If the GOP has 55 Senators, 5 could vote against/abstain, and Bolton gets the position. So Voinovich's promise, even if carried out, is almost certainly meaningless.

Posted by: Barry | May 13, 2005 2:43:58 PM

Well, I'm going to be at Aristotle's Retreat, doing some deep thinking about what Voinovich's remarks mean.

Posted by: marky | May 13, 2005 3:22:03 PM

It's OK, jonny. It was fake indignation.

Navigator, I haven't reviewed his statement, but if your summary is accurate, I'd read it just the way you did. I don't hold out a lot of hope that many Republican institutionalists are going to be able to resist the leg-breakers.

Having jumped with no parachute, they'll all cling to one another in the hopes that somebody else will end up on the bottom of the pile and cushion the impact.

Posted by: Kagro X | May 13, 2005 5:22:22 PM

It's OK, jonny. It was fake indignation.

Well, I did indeed go to your blog, and am glad I did. Good stuff.

Posted by: jonnybutter | May 13, 2005 7:28:56 PM

I hope and pray for such an outcome but maybe Frist is stalling because he wants to get legislation out of the way beforehand? I mean, he might be taking Reid seriously and figures the Dems will shut down the Senate. The delay then would be due to tidying up before the storm rather than because he doesn't have enough votes.

Just a thought.

Posted by: patachon | May 16, 2005 2:21:58 AM

I hope and pray that between the mess Frist has the senate in now and the Schiavo case this will put all thoughts of him running for Pres. out of his head Think I would have to move to France if he became our next Pres. Doint know if I can live through this last 3 years of Bush They are both egotistical dumb people Margie

Posted by: margie | May 19, 2005 2:25:39 PM