In a little over 30 seconds on the Senate floor yesterday, Republican leader Mitch McConnell demonstrated everything that's broken in the United States Senate.
A little after noon eastern time, McConnell rose to object to Majority Leader Harry Reid's motion to confirm several Obama Administration officials, including appointees with jurisdiction over issues of national security.
By objecting to Reid's motion, McConnell effectively subjected the nominees to a filibuster, raising the threshold for confirmation to 60 votes (the only way to override his objection on the Senate floor is to invoke cloture on Reid's motion). With the swearing-in of Scott Brown, Republicans now have 41 votes, so as long as they hold together, McConnell's objection cannot be overridden on the Senate floor.
As if that isn't broken enough, McConnell also admitted that he didn't know why he was objecting to Reid's motion other than he was doing it on behalf of Richard Shelby, the Republican Senator from Alabama, who was in some sort of dispute with the Obama administration.
McCONNELL: Madam President, reserving the right to object, and I’m going to do that, I just wanted to indicate that Senator Shelby has been in discussions with the administration over an issue with which I’m not terribly familiar and I believe that that is the genesis of his objection. He is not able to be here at the moment to state his position. Maybe we can, in discussions with him, make some progress on these, sooner rather than later, but for the moment I’m constrained to object on his behalf.
Of course, we now know what Shelby wants. Later in the day, his office released a statement indicating that the primary motivation for Shelby's hostage taking was his desire to see the Pentagon's aerial refueling tanker contract go to the European aerospace giant EADS instead of the American firm Boeing. Shelby wants EADS to get the contract because some of manufacturing work would be done in his home state of Alabama.
It's stunning that a senator would be willing to shut down the process of confirming administration appointees simply to help a foreign firm win a military contract. But it's also amazing that Mitch McConnell, the GOP's leader in the Senate, carried Shelby's water without understanding what Shelby was up to or trying to accomplish.
By blindly doing Shelby's bidding, McConnell placed political power above principle, abdicating any potential claim to the moral high ground on Senate procedure. He's given the Democratic Party a huge opening not just to put Republicans on defense, but to reform Senate rules. They must take advantage of it.
Update (11:03AM) -- Dan Pfeiffer, the WH communications director, targets the filibuster in response to McConnell's and Shelby's antics:
This is just the latest example of this kind opposition for opposition’s sake that the President talked about earlier this week. This strategy of obstruction is preventing qualified people from doing their jobs on behalf of the American people and it’s preventing real work from getting done in Washington. ... The Senate cast more votes to break filibusters last year than in the entire 1950s and '60s combined, making it nearly impossible to come to agreement on key legislation.
Pfeiffer is correct to point to the procedural problems, though this isn't opposition for opposition's sake. Shelby's hold is extortion -- he's holding the nomination process hostage in order to help a foreign aerospace firm win a giant military contract. The fact that the Senate's antiquated rulebook allows him to do this is a major problem, and it's one that can be fixed by eliminating the filibuster at the beginning of the next session of Congress.