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Harry Reid detonates the 'nuclear option'

The Senate majority leader and his fellow Democrats restructure long-standing Senate rules to limit the power of Republicans

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid meets with the press Thursday. Associated Press/Photo by Jacquelyn Martin

Harry Reid detonates the 'nuclear option'

WASHINGTON—Robert Byrd, the late Democrat from West Virginia who was elected to the Senate for a record nine terms, once warned that changing Senate rules to end filibusters would “destroy the uniqueness of this institution” and “mean that minority rights would cease to exist.”

Byrd’s Democratic successors on Thursday ignored his warnings, passing a measure to limit the minority party’s ability to block some nominees backed by the majority.

The Founding Fathers designed the Senate to provide a fence against any abuses by the federal government’s executive branch through the use of unlimited debates, discussions, and amendments. But in a 52-48 vote, the Democratic majority in the Senate changed a long-standing rule requiring a 60-vote threshold on presidential appointees. Now just a simple majority of senators is all that will be required to confirm a president’s picks for most of the federal courts and positions in the Cabinet and other agencies. Supreme Court nominations are exempted from the change. But those opposed to the move fear it creates a slippery slope that eventually could be extended to the Supreme Court confirmation process as well as the passage of legislation.

“This action by the Democratic majority today is the most dangerous restructuring of the rules of the United States Senate since Thomas Jefferson wrote the rules at the founding of our county,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. “It creates the perpetual opportunity for the tyranny of the majority, because it permits the majority in this body to do whatever it wants to do anytime it wants to do it.”

Alexander and other Republicans warned that the power grab by Senate Democrats was aimed at helping to enact and protect President Barack Obama’s ambitious regulatory agenda. Lower level courts, whose judges can now be confirmed by the approval of one party, likely will be making future rulings on many issues related to the implementation of Obamacare, the mammoth federal government oversight of the nation’s healthcare system that passed without a single Republican vote in the Senate.

Conservatives called Thursday a sad day in the Senate that ignored 225 years of precedent. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other Republicans accused Democrats of making this move now to distract Washington and the rest of the nation from Obamacare’s ongoing struggles.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who once boasted in his memoirs about using the filibuster to block President George W. Bush’s agenda, brought the rule change to the Senate floor despite repeated assurances this summer that he would not do so.

“We’re not talking about changing the filibuster rules that relate to nominations for judges,” Sen. Reid said in a television appearance back in July. “We’re not touching judges.”

But on Thursday Reid argued, “Congress is broken” and “gridlock has consequences,” adding his claim that what is bad for Obama and bad for the Senate is also bad for the country.

“We much prefer the risk of up or down votes and majority rule to the risk of continued obstruction,” Reid told reporters.

Not all Democrats agreed. Three members of Reid’s party, Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Carl Levin of Michigan joined Republicans in opposing the rule change.

“It could do permanent damage here to this institution and could have some very negative ramifications for our country and for the American people,” Pryor said. “I am very disappointed that it got to this point. The Senate was designed to be a place for debate.”

Obama the senator used the filibuster, including one to block one of Bush’s nominees to the Supreme Court. But on Thursday, Obama the president called it a “reckless and relentless tool.” Saying that filibusters “just gum up the works,” Obama called the “pattern of obstruction” Republicans have used to block his agenda “just not normal.”

“If you’ve got a majority of folks who believe in something, then it should be able to pass,” Obama said.

The move means that individuals tapped by the president to sit on courts and to oversee agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services can take their positions without winning over any minority support. Republicans warn that likely will further politicize an already highly partisan Washington.

While legislation is still subject to the 60-vote threshold, Obama, in his remarks after the vote, blamed the filibuster for blocking his agenda on such issues as gun control and immigration. That hints at future efforts by the majority to keep going after the filibuster as a tool by subjecting bills to the simple majority vote.

After the vote, Republicans took turns lamenting the biggest change to the way the Senate operates in a generation. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., warned, “If the majority only can change the rules, then there are no rules.” Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said the vote removed “one of the last meaningful checks on the president … any president.”

The debate over changing the filibuster has occupied the Senate for at least a decade. When Republicans were in the majority they discussed the move, which has been dubbed the “nuclear option,” after Democrats filibustered Bush nominees to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Those past debates, including in 2005, featured role reversals with then Sen. Joe Biden warning that the nuclear option “makes a mockery of Senate rules.”

But the majority party always fell short of detonating this nuclear option. That changed on Thursday. This time Vice President Biden gave his approval to the nuclear option.

So far during Obama’s presidency, the Senate has confirmed 209 of his nominees and rejected only five.

“By any objective standard, Senate Republicans have been very, very fair to this president,” McConnell said.

Three-fifths of the Democrats currently in the Senate have never served in the minority. After enjoying a 60-plus, filibuster-proof majority during the first two years of Obama’s presidency, Democrats have struggled to move the president’s legislative agenda under a more tightly divided Senate. That frustration boiled over on Thursday, leading to this unprecedented change. But Republicans warn that there will come a day when the roles are reversed.

“Majorities are fickle,” said Sen. Grassley, who has served in the Senate since 1981. “Here today, gone tomorrow. That is a lesson that sadly most of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle haven’t learned.”

Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is the executive director of the World Journalism Institute and former Washington, D.C. bureau chief for WORLD Magazine. He is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and teaches journalism at Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa.


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