I know this is often hard for professional politicians and political aides to comprehend, but regular Americans really don’t pay attention to abstract congressional maneuvers. If the Senate Democratic caucus thinks reforming Senate rules is a good thing that would eventually will lead to better policy outcomes, they should implement them. If they don’t think it will, they shouldn’t make the change. But what definitely shouldn’t be part of their decision making process is any concern that slightly modifying the rule could cause a broad political backlash. There simply won’t be any.
The American people are just barely paying attention to the biggest congressional actions, there is no way they will cast votes in two years based on Senate rules changes.
Despite health care reform being the biggest most debated, most partisan legislation in years, a Pew poll found only 32 percent of Americans know that no Republican senators voted for it. A nearly identical number of Americans, 29 percent, thought it actually got bipartisan support.
According to Kaiser Family Foundation poll from April, 45 percent of people thought the CBO said the health care bill would add to the deficit. Only 25 percent state correctly that the CBO said it would reduce the deficit. (That is the same number of accurate responses you would expect from pure guessing given that there were only effectively four options.)
Even more telling is that according to a Pew Poll only 46 percent of Americans know that the Republicans won the House but not the Senate this last election.
Most Americans don’t know understand the Senate rules
According to a Pew poll only 26 percent of Americans even know that it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster in the Senate, 25 percent incorrectly think it only takes 51 votes. The number of people that understand the far more obscure rules Democrats are thinking about modifying is probably in the extremely low single digits.
Completely ending the Filibuster is popular
Even if Democrats went so far as to bring cloture down to 51 votes, which a quarter of the country already thinks it is at, there would probably be little political blowback from what would be a relatively well-reported event.
Ending the filibuster is the popular position. A New Times poll from February found 50 percent in support of ending the filibuster, with 44 percent in support of keeping it. A poll by Mark Penn from July put support at 53 percent, with opposition at 35 percent, and a PPP poll from November found 64 percent of voters in support of reform, with just 23 percent opposed. The worst I’ve ever seen it poll was a recent Quinnipiac poll that had 42 percent saying it was a good idea, and 45 percent a bad idea.
Americans are not going to go to pay close attention to modest changes to arcane Senate rules
Democrats would probably win politically from totally crippling the filibuster, but given how modest their proposed reforms are, it is almost impossible to see how most Americans would notice or care in two years. Even the conservative blogs are showing little resistance to Udall’s modest changes.
The number of Americans who even know there is a motion to proceed to debate, and that it can be filibustered, must be incredibly small. Does anyone honestly think regular voters would care if this frankly nonsensical Senate rule they didn’t know about is eliminated?
If Republicans in two years want to go through the excruciatingly monotonous task of trying to make a political issue during the campaign out of how Democrats didn’t eliminate their ability to filibuster, but made it slightly harder by eliminating their ability to debate whether to start the debate on a bill, Democrats should joyously welcome this development.
While there are plenty of things Democrats should consider as they debate the issue of possibly reforming the Senate’s rules, the concern that Republicans could create political backlash by turning this extremely complex and boring procedural debate into a campaign issue in 2012 definitely shouldn’t be one of them.
The fact that even Ben Nelson (D-NE), one of the most enduring conservative Democrats is leaving the door open to supporting modest rules reform by majority vote shows how negligible any political damage from the position would be.