There's no doubt that many Republican senators, and plenty of conservative commentators, were angry at GOP Sen. Ted Cruz for raising a time-consuming objection to passage of the "Cromnibus" spending bill in an effort to oppose President Obama's unilateral executive action on immigration. It's not that fellow Republicans don't oppose the president's move; they do. It's just that 1) Cruz's gambit had no hope of succeeding, and 2) the maneuver set off a series of parliamentary events that allowed Majority Leader Harry Reid to get a head start on his other remaining business, which was the confirmation of a number of President Obama's nominees.
What followed Cruz's action was a series of sometimes bitter complaints that the renegade senator had, through his own ill-considered tactics, not only failed to make a dent in Obama's immigration edict but also made it easier for the president to confirm his nominees in the last days of a Democratic majority in the Senate.
Specifically, the accusation is that Cruz's initiative created a break in the consideration of the spending bill that allowed Reid to take the opportunity to set in motion the procedures necessary to get the confirmations underway. By doing that on Saturday, instead of having to wait until after the spending bill was passed on, say, Monday, the thinking goes, Reid got to pass more nominations than he might otherwise have. And of course, given that Democrats are about to give up control of the Senate, this was Reid's last chance to confirm Obama's nominees on his own.
There are four problems with the anti-Cruz scenario. The first is that on Dec. 9, days before Cruz threw a wrench in the works, Reid signaled his intention to confirm all of Obama's remaining nominees, no matter how long it took.
"You know, maybe we'll have to work the weekend and maybe even work next week," Reid told reporters. "I know that's tough duty for everybody, but we may have to do that. We have a number of nominations we're going to do. We're going to — we have nine judges left. We're going to do those. We're going to do [Surgeon General nominee] Dr. [Vivek] Murthy. We're going to do the head of Immigration Naturalization, ICE. Social Security administrator and other things. I've given a list to the Republicans and it's up to them to decide how long we stay."
Does that sound like a majority leader who is ready to pack up and go home without passing his party's nominees? No, it doesn't. And that leads to the second problem with the scenario, which is the nature of Harry Reid himself. It is simply impossible to believe that the man who made the Senate pass Obamacare on Christmas Eve would abandon the president's nominees out of the goodness of his heart so that Republican colleagues could go home to make scheduled dates at the ballet or visits with family. That is not Harry Reid's style. If Cruz had not acted, would Reid have said, 'Well, it looks like we would have to work all the way until Dec. 18 to finish these nominations, so let's just put them aside and go home and have a nice time, even though it's our party's last chance to pass them." Does anyone believe Reid would have done that?
The third problem with the scenario is Reid's authority as majority leader. He can keep the Senate in session whenever he wants (just as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will be able to do next year.) No, Reid cannot keep every individual senator in the chamber or even in Washington. But he can make the Senate function. And there is little doubt he was determined to pass Obama's nominees.
Finally, the fourth problem with the scenario is Reid's filibuster "reform." The whole point of Reid's exercise of the so-called "nuclear option" was to make it possible for Democrats to roll over Republicans when it came to confirming the president's nominees. Yes, GOP lawmakers could force brief delays in such confirmations, but when push came to shove -- as it did at the end of a session with the Democratic majority set to disappear — Reid could muscle through any nominee for whom he had 51 votes. And so he did; if there was any single factor that accounted for the rush of year-end confirmations, that was it.
As the Senate wound up its work, I asked both Republican and Democratic aides what the effect of the Cruz maneuver had been. One GOP aide discounted the effect of Cruz's action. "Reid made clear that he was going to move these nominations before the end of the year," the aide said. "I personally cannot accept the idea that Harry Reid, out of his own generosity, was going to let us go, even if it cost him 20 nominations."
Another GOP aide argued that Cruz's action had indeed hurt. "The bottom line here is that Reid had agreed to a vote on the 'Cromnibus' Monday evening — before filing on any of these nominees," the aide said in an email exchange. "Once that vote took place, Reid would have lost all the leverage that comes with holding a must-pass piece of legislation over the heads of Democrat senators who'd just lost their majority. Once the 'Cromnibus' passed, they can leave. And Reid would have had less than 48 hours before the beginning of Hanukah to file and confirm his nominations. So sure, maybe he would have moved quickly on a few of the more controversial ones. But certainly not on the 10 or so lifetime federal judges he'll now be able to confirm, among others."
The idea was that as time passed, with the spending bill already done, Reid would have been unable to keep his team together in Washington. But the spending bill was passed over the weekend, and as it turned out, those discouraged Democratic senators stayed in town on Monday and Tuesday to cast votes, including for confirmations. Without that must-pass legislation over their heads, why didn't they just leave — leaving Reid unable to win those confirmations?
"Because Reid already filed on all the nominations," the Senate GOP aide said. "Once that's done, it's like, what the hell, we're staying now."
That's not the most persuasive argument in the world. And of course, the Senate confirmed more nominees than just those covered by Reid over the weekend. In fact, the session ended Tuesday night with senators confirming 34 nominees by unanimous consent. Rather than rush out of town before voting, senators of both parties rushed the voting so they could get out of town. The result was the confirmations that Reid was determined to win all along. Ted Cruz had little or nothing to do with that.
A Democratic aide noted that Reid would have had a more difficult time getting votes as the week wore on. Cruz helped Democrats by allowing the process to start on Saturday rather than Monday, the aide said in an email exchange. But remember, with the Saturday start, the Senate finished on the night of Tuesday, Dec. 16. Would it have killed any of the lawmakers to stay until Thursday if Reid had insisted on confirming the nominees? And the Senate would certainly have stepped on the gas to get it done as early as possible; just look at that session-ending unanimous consent confirmation of 34 nominees.
Finally, the Democratic aide noted another factor shaping events. "The other dynamic at play is that now that Cruz has been firmly established as the goat of the lame duck session, Senate Republicans have cover to bail," the aide wrote before the session ended. "They can give us consents more easily now because they know Cruz will be blamed. There is less pressure on them to hold out and actually force us to run clocks. So that's why I say it is certain that we will walk away with more nominees confirmed than if Cruz had not done what he did."
That is why we saw Democrats extravagantly "thanking" Cruz for his action. They wanted to establish the storyline that Cruz had blundered into giving Democrats what they wanted, because that would give Republicans the opportunity to point fingers at Cruz — even as they gave Democrats what they wanted. It made it easier for everyone to do what they really wanted, which was to head home as soon as possible.
If things had worked out differently, Reid might have been portrayed as a hardass keeping lawmakers trapped in Washington until they confirmed all the president's nominees. In the other scenario, the one that became a reality, lawmakers could blame Cruz while blowing through the nominations in a race out of town.
So there were some very complex cross-currents going on in the Senate in the last few days. The bottom line is that President Obama and Democrats got the confirmations they wanted — just as they planned and intended, regardless of anything Ted Cruz did. As he made clear before it all began, Harry Reid was going to make full use of his last chance to confirm his party's nominees. It would have made no sense for him to do otherwise.
This story was first published on Dec. 16 at 11:38 p.m.