I suppose I should say something about Jim DeMint's kidnap of the Senate. Mostly, though, I would say that this is exactly what Greg Koger predicts:: at the end of the session, minorities maximize whatever leverage a legislative chamber's rules give them to stall things. Since the Senate gives minorities lots of chances to stall, we would expect those opportunities to be exercised when leverage is highest. Bingo.
Could the Democrats have fought this battle better? Throughout the 111th Congress, Harry Reid and the Democrats have placed time back home as a higher priority than Senate floor time. We don't really know how valuable district campaign time is for re-election (as far as I know it's never been studied systematically), but clearly Members of Congress believe it's very important. We can guess that they probably overrate its importance...but then again, spending more time in Washington and passing more legislation and confirming more nominees probably would not have helped get Democrats re-elected at all, and so it's understandable that their demands on the Senate leadership are to protect district work time above all.
In the short term, what Harry Reid could have tried is a pure bluff, claiming that the Senate would stay in session until specific important work was done, even if he was intent on getting out of town by a date certain. In the longer run...hard to say. The White House could have, once they realized last February or so that Senate floor time was a big deal, commissioned a study and rigged it (if needed) to show that district time was actually completely irrelevant to re-election, but that confirming the nominations of assistant secretaries of various departments was highly important. OK, maybe not that last thing, but perhaps numbers of bills passed or something like that. And then they could have gone to the Democratic caucus last spring and tried to convince them to buy into it. Would it have worked? Maybe a little bit, if not all the way. And after all, as it turned out shaving a couple of week off of August recess, 2009 might have been a fairly big deal if it meant that more things passed during the Democrats' short 60 Senator window. On the other hand, perhaps five or six fewer weeks back home could have made the difference for Murray, Boxer, and Feingold. Overall, I do think that Reid and the Democrats in general (including the White House) have done a poor job of finding aggressive, creative ways to fight back against the Republicans' aggressive, creative use of Senate rules -- that doesn't really affect the bills and nominations for which the Dems fell short of 60 votes, but it has, I think, meant that they've been less successful than they could have been on bills and nominations for which they had 60, and in many cases far more than 60 votes. At this point, however, Koger's arguments about leverage and the end of the session are what I'd think about, and that's going to be true even with quite a bit of Senate rule reform.