DeMint’s effort to make the Senate even more dysfunctional

DEMINT’S EFFORT TO MAKE THE SENATE EVEN MORE DYSFUNCTIONAL…. Up until very recently, when every meaningful piece of legislation came down to the whims of a few senators, any steps to make the Senate even more dysfunctional were cause for mild panic.

Now, stories like these are more likely to cause eye-rolling than consternation.

A bloc of Senate conservatives, led by South Carolina’s Jim DeMint, flexed their muscles Thursday, pledging to block any bill they alone deem wasteful or unconstitutional.

Seven other GOP senators joined DeMint’s effort, including three freshman he helped elect in November, and veteran Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee.

“I’m proud to stand with my fellow conservative Senate colleagues to require thorough review of bills to prevent secret passage of wasteful spending and unconstitutional legislation,” DeMint said.

Beyond passing judgment on whether measures are constitutional, DeMint’s new group wants any new spending to be offset by other funding cuts and for duplicative government programs to be consolidated or eliminated.

Yes, it’s quite a little ransom note DeMint and his allies have put together. They’ll block literally every piece of legislation that fails to meet a five-point test, including their perceptions of laws that “infringe upon the constitutional rights of the people.”

Who gets to decide which bills are constitutional? They do.

The bloc was apparently organized by DeMint, arguably the Senate’s most right-wing member, but it includes Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), John Ensign (R-Nev.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.). All will stand together, they say, to prevent the Senate from voting on anything that doesn’t meet their standards.

In other words, these eight Republicans won’t just vote against bills; they’ll make sure senators don’t vote on these bills at all, even if a majority of the institution wants them to pass.

So, why isn’t this a bigger deal? Because the Senate just doesn’t matter as much as it did. In 2009 and 2010, the House was largely an afterthought — the practical equivalent to a “motion to proceed” for the Senate. The House had the ability to function whether the GOP minority liked it or not, so the Senate became the focus of all the attention, since it was the chamber that dictated what would become law or not.

This Congress is the opposite. There’s a huge House Republican majority, so if any meaningful legislation is going to have any shot at all, the White House will negotiate, not with Snowe and Collins, but with Boehner and Cantor (or whomever is telling the leadership what to do at any given moment). If a bill the White House can tolerate can get through a right-wing lower chamber, getting Senate support for the measure shouldn’t be too difficult.

But this isn’t to say that this new bloc is entirely uninteresting. I’d say there are a few takeaways to keep in mind: (1) those waiting for a sensible McCain to re-emerge now look rather ridiculous; (2) Ayotte and Johnson are way more conservative than their voters probably realized; (3) the pressure will be on other Senate Republicans to explain why they didn’t sign on to DeMint’s little project; and (4) the Senate remains a dysfunctional mess.