As the dust settled on Saturday’s drama in the U.S. Senate, there was one bottom-line result: Congress approved a $1.1 trillion spending package – the so-called “CRomnibus” – that funds most federal operations through the end of the fiscal year. The final vote in the upper chamber was 56 to 40, and President Obama will sign the bill into law.
But it’s what happened before the vote that people will be talking about for a while.
As of Friday night, it appeared the Senate leadership in both parties had reached an agreement on the schedule: members would vote on the spending package on Monday, and if Democrats were lucky, they might get a few confirmation votes in before the Senate recessed for the year. Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters, “See you Monday” on his way out the door late Friday.
As msnbc’s Benjy Sarlin reported, however, that was before a couple of far-right senators hatched a plan of their own.
Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee are facing a backlash of their own from Republican colleagues after scuttling a deal between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to allow lawmakers to leave town over the weekend and vote on the bill Monday.The agreement between the leaders required the unanimous consent of members, but an unsuccessful attempt by Lee and Cruz on Friday to force a vote on a measure to defund President Obama’s recent executive action on immigration upended their plan.
The result was an extraordinary gift to Democrats, handed to them by unwitting allies: two conservative Republicans who plainly didn’t know what they were doing.
Under the schedule Reid and McConnell agreed upon, the spending bill would get wrapped up long before a possible shutdown, but the future of several pending Obama administration nominees was in doubt – some would get votes, some would probably run out of time.
But Cruz and Lee thought they had a better idea: they scuttled the McConnell/Reid deal, demanded a vote on the constitutionality of the president’s immigration policy, and kept the Senate in session for a rare Saturday workday.
It was, in terms of Senate procedure, a fumble – and Democrats were only too pleased to pick up the ball and run with it.
Dems, suddenly with time to kill, filed cloture motions on 24 pending executive branch and judicial nominees on Saturday. Why is that important? Because given the way the Senate operates, there’s a gap between when a nomination is brought to the floor and when the nominee receives a confirmation vote.
What McConnell and most GOP senators wanted was a narrow window: the Senate would vote on the spending package on Monday, at which point Reid would start the clock on the nominations, clearing votes for later this week. Republicans assumed – and were probably correct – that most members would want to start their holiday break sooner, and adjournment might derail nominees who might otherwise be approved.
But thanks to Cruz and Lee, that timeline was moved up: Reid started the clock on Saturday, meaning confirmation votes can begin later this morning. In other words, a couple of far-right senators made it easier for Democrats and Obama to get what they wanted – and approve some nominees who were likely to fail were it not for the Cruz/Lee plan.
Giddy Democrats could hardly believe their good fortune. Meanwhile, the other Senate Republicans – who didn’t know what Cruz and Lee were up to, and weren’t in a position to tell them what a mistake they were making – were livid. Many of them were eager to tell reporters – out loud and on the record – how badly their right-wing colleagues had screwed up. Indeed, Senate Dems posted an online collection of quotes from Republican senators bashing the Cruz/Lee gambit – and the list of quotes isn’t short. Asked for her reaction, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) added, “I think this is ridiculous.”
The far-right stunt turned “many of Cruz’s colleagues openly against him,” and when his constitutional point of order did come up for a vote, it failed 74 to 22, with many Republicans, including McConnell himself, voting with Democrats to convey their irritation.
I can appreciate why the procedural stuff may seem a little complicated, so let’s sum this up:
What Democrat got thanks to Cruz and Lee: the opportunity to advance dozens of Obama nominees, some of whom might have otherwise failed.
What Republicans got: nothing.
Some allies of Cruz and Lee will argue that at least Republicans got to vote on a measure criticizing the president’s immigration policy, but (a) that measure was symbolic; (b) the measure failed; (c) the measure was always going to fail; and (d) the measure was going to get a floor vote anyway. Moving it didn’t help the GOP in any way.
Making matters slightly worse for Republicans, as of late Friday, the only thing the political world wanted to talk about were the divisions within the Democratic ranks. Just 24 hours later, the only thing the political world wanted to talk about was the fact that Senate Republicans really seem to hate Ted Cruz.
It didn’t have to be this way. If Cruz and Lee spent a little more time learning how the Senate works, if they’d bothered to check in with their own leaders about the chamber’s procedural rules, if they’d thought about the consequences of their actions, this would have gone much differently.
Democrats, however, are awfully appreciative of their ignorance.