Before White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew had even been nominated to President Obama's cabinet, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, said Lew "must never be secretary of Treasury." Yesterday on CNBC, the far-right Alabama senator went even further.
For those who can't watch clips online, Sessions specifically said, "I intend to oppose this nomination." Asked if he would filibuster Lew's nomination, Sessions added, "We'll just see what happens."
I tend to think most of this is pointless chest-thumping that won't amount to anything. Even if Sessions were to launch the first-ever filibuster of a Treasury secretary nominee, he'd almost certainly have trouble finding 40 friends to help him prevent an up-or-down vote.
But let's not overlook Sessions' stated rationale: "I don't think [Lew] brings to -- certainly doesn't bring the gravitas of former New York Fed chairmen like Secretary Geithner and other very prominent people we've had as secretary of Treasury."
Wait, what? The ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee is preparing to go to political war over a perceived sense of gravitas?
I suppose this is a subjective matter -- Lew strikes me as a rather accomplished and impressive individual, but obviously opinions can vary -- but if we're going to start judging cabinet secretaries based on Jeff Sessions' ambiguous standards on stature, the confirmation process will soon reach new depths of dysfunction.
In fact, if this is on the table as an important Washington metric, I might also suggest Sessions lacks the gravitas to have a leading role over who is and isn't in a presidential cabinet.
But even putting that aside, Sessions' incoherent opposition to Lew's nomination only helps underscore what we discussed yesterday: the Senate's filibuster rules need to be reformed to prevent these ridiculous antics. Indeed, Dave Weigel reported that Sessions is inadvertently helping his Democratic opponents.
Sessions' outrage was manna to an unexpected group of people: Democrats. For months, a group of freshman Democratic senators have been trying to nail down 51 votes to reform the filibuster. On Jan. 22, when the Senate votes on this congressional session's rulebook, they'll need to keep that group together. Every time a Republican threatens an Obama nominee, their job gets easier.
"It really does highlight how the intentional paralysis of the Senate, through the use of a filibuster as a party tool, has gotten out of hand," says Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, one of the authors of the reform plan. "Here are qualified people, the president has just won re-election, and [Republicans] are making it as difficult as possible to get them confirmed."
As Jonathan Bernstein explained, filibuster reform is increasingly about nominations, not legislation. When it comes to individual bills, filibuster reform is far less urgent -- allowing Senate Democrats to pass bills that will quickly die in a GOP-led House is inconsequential. But when it comes to confirming qualified nominees that Republicans oppose for nonsensical reasons, filibuster reform starts to look increasingly important.
In other words, just keep on talking, Sen. Sessions.