Over the last two years, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid has ruled over the United States Senate like some kind of 19th century potentate.
A ruthless political operative, Reid has single-handedly blocked legislation, prevented the Senate from voting on healthcare repeal, and led the effort to keep his fellow Democrats from having to go on record voting for a budget—as they are by law required to do—for each of the last three years. He has also, by doing what is known on Capitol Hill as "filling the tree," prevented his Republican colleagues from offering amendments on crucial pieces of legislation.
Reid decides what amendments will be offered and by whom, leading to an increase in the number of times the GOP has had to resort to the filibuster. Under Reid's autocratic rule it is the only way they can make their voice heard.
Now Reid says he wants to limit the voice of the GOP even further by restricting the ability of senators to block or slow the passage of legislation. He has not yet put forward an explicit plan for doing so but the intent is clear: to give him even more authority to determine what can be brought to the Senate floor and to further muzzle the opposition.
In order to remain effective, perhaps even in order to survive, Senate Republicans need to be radicalized—much as members of the House were by the Conservative Opportunity Society under the leadership of a then-obscure backbencher named Gingrich. Without a change in attitude, they may be relegated to the status of a permanent and ineffective minority—as hard as that may be to conceive.
First and foremost is the matter of the leadership. Kentucky's Mitch McConnell has largely been a combative and effective leader—given the limitations and difficulties involved in holding together a group that runs the ideological gamut from Maine's Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins to South Carolina's Jim DeMint.
What McConnell needs is a "bad cop" to act as balance when he, as leaders are sometimes called on to do, must play the "good cop." Fortunately, as Senate GOP Whip John Kyl is retiring, there is a vacancy in the leadership that would be the ideal position for such a person. Unfortunately the only person to have declared in the race to succeed Kyl is Texas Republican John Cornyn who, some GOP activists like to point out, is fresh off two less-than-spectacular terms as head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
As head of the NRSC, Cornyn has twice failed to lead the party to majority. Some will argue that significant issues beyond his control were involved. Others point to his early recruitment of former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist into the 2010 Senate race—only to see Crist turn independent rather than lose the primary to GOP rising star Marco Rubio—as well as his failure to recruit a strong field of candidates against an extremely vulnerable class of Democratic senators in 2012—as among the reasons to regard him with suspicion.
Cornyn, while generally sound from an ideological standpoint, is not accustomed to throwing sharp elbows. Better the GOP senators nominate someone like Utah's Mike Lee, who beat a sitting incumbent Republican in a primary and has been a leader on a variety of important issues over his first two years as a member of the "world's greatest deliberative body."
Lee is exactly the kind of breath of fresh air the Republicans need in leadership to do battle aggressively against Reid and his autocracy. He's a powerful voice for change and is a reformer – who could no doubt win the backing of the other more aggressive, change-minded members of the GOP—senators like DeMint, Oklahoma's Tom Coburn, Kentucky's Rand Paul, Alabama's Jeff Sessions, Wisconsin's Ron Johnson, and incoming Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake.
It would also make sense for the Republicans in the Senate to take a serious look at who is going to replace Cornyn as head of the NRSC. Right now the only announced candidate is Kansas's Jerry Moran, who is not exactly known for his leadership on conservative issues. In fact he only got elected after spending his way to victory in the 2008 GOP primary over former Rep. Todd Tiahrt, a Republican much more in line with the activist mentality the chamber needs.
Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman is thought to be looking at the race and, while solid, may still be not aggressive enough to take on the task of vetting and recruiting solid candidates for 2014—where the vulnerable Democrats include those sitting in "Romney States" like Alaska's Mark Begich, Arkansas's Mark Pryor, and Louisiana's Mary Landrieu, as well as Minnesota's Al Franken—the accidental senator who likely won election only because of illegal votes cast by convicted felons.
If the Republican senators refuse to take a stand now against Reid's effort to expand his power by restricting the filibuster, then they leave themselves open to being marginalized even further. The Democrats will push the advantage as far as they can if all they encounter is mush. To force them back the GOP must demonstrate that it has steel in its spine.