Senate Democrats Go ‘Nuclear’ to Curb the Filibuster

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Andrew Burton / Getty Images

Senate majority leader Harry Reid in Washington on Oct. 13, 2013

Senate Democrats pushed through a historic change to the chamber’s rules on Thursday, doing away with filibusters on executive appointments and most judicial nominations in a bid to ease the gridlock gripping the chamber.

The move, known as the “nuclear option,” passed by a vote of 52-48, with all but three Democrats voting to reform the chamber’s rules and every Republican opposing the measure.

“I support the step a majority of Senators took today to change the ways of Washington by changing the way Congress does business,” President Obama told reporters at the White House. “This gridlock has not served the cause of justice. In fact it has undermined it.

“A majority of Senators believe, as I believe, enough is enough,” he said. “Public service is not a game. It is a privilege.”

The mid-session revision to Senate rules will prevent use of the filibuster to block executive and judicial nominations, with the exception of Supreme Court nominees. It lowers the 60-vote threshold to move forward on such nominations to a simple majority. The change does not apply to legislation, meaning that all bills will still require 60 votes to clear the Senate.

Fed up with the pattern of obstruction that has ground the chamber’s business to a halt, Senate Democrats cast aside the minority’s objections and moved ahead with the first change to filibuster rules since 1975, when the chamber reduced the threshold required to surmount a filibuster from 67 to 60. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid argued that curbing abuse of the filibuster was a necessity for the hidebound institution to function properly.

“The Senate is a living thing,” the Nevada Democrat said during a speech on the Senate floor. “To survive, it must change.”

Both parties have used the filibuster as a procedural tool, both to block judicial and executive nominees and to stymie legislation. During the Bush Administration, Republicans threatened to go nuclear when Democrats held up judicial appointments. But use of the filibuster has skyrocketed to unprecedented levels during the Obama Administration, as Republicans harnessed the procedural tactic to stop the President’s agenda. “The American people believe the Senate is broken, and I believe the American people are right,” Reid said. “It is time to change the Senate before this institution becomes obsolete.”

Taking the podium in the White House briefing room after the vote, President Obama hailed the Senate’s move to limit the filibuster. “It’s no longer used in a responsible way to govern. It’s rather used as a reckless and relentless tool to grind all business to a halt,” Obama said. “And that’s not what our founders intended. And it’s certainly not what our country needs right now.”

In the past, the nuclear option has regularly been invoked as a bluff to force deals on confirmations. While a passel of Democrats were determined to curb Republicans’ use of the filibuster, other members of the majority party have been leery of reforming the rules for fear of limiting their own leverage when they fall into the minority. A push to reform the filibuster early this year yielded a watered-down deal that changed little.

Though the Senate reached a bipartisan deal to avert the nuclear option earlier this year, the Democratic leader returned to the topic after a stretch in which Republicans blocked votes on several nominees to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. circuit. Reid’s decision to finally push the button reflects mounting frustration with Republican obstruction, as well as a growing belief that Republican would have no compunctions about changing the rules themselves should they return to the majority.

In response to the move, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell warned that Democrats would ultimately reap what they sowed. “Some of us have been around long enough to know the shoe is sometimes on the other foot,” said the Kentucky senator, who accused Democrats of “cooking up a fight fight over judges that aren’t even needed” to distract the public from the political debacle engulfing the President’s healthcare law.

“I’d probably want to talk about something else too,” McConnell said. “Rather than distract some people from Obamacare, it only reinforces the narrative of a party that’s willing to do or say just about anything to get its way.”

Senator Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat who led a push to ease the filibuster earlier this year, said the move was intended to return the Senate to its traditional role. “The vote that comes today is the necessary outcome of a series of broken promises and it restores the traditional understanding of advice and consent,” he said. “When the promise of rare exception is destroyed in favor of routine obstruction, we have the deep freeze. Now we will be out of the deep freeze on nominations.”

But Republicans warned that stripping a tool of the minority would set a new precedent that will ultimately backfire on Democrats. “I think Democrats are playing with fire,” Senator John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, told TIME. “This is very dangerous in terms of what it means for the Senate. What goes around comes around. And someday they’re going to be in the minority.”

“Once you open this door, anything can happen,” Thune adds. “It’s a whole new ball game.”

With reporting by Alex Rogers

173 comments
barneydidit
barneydidit

@paulejb Keep making predictions Paule, it's a fine display of stubborn disregard for history, but there's always a chance that one of these times...you'll get a prediction correct. 

jmac
jmac

McConnell's statement that this rule change was merely a distraction from the issue of Obamacare was repeated on Fox News last night.    Fox didn't take the bait; they continued with the health care drumbeat.   

Apparently, a rule change in the Senate is too deep for their constituents to grasp and it's the glitches in the signup for health care that they think will win them the mid-terms.   Hopefully,  they'll keep it up for a year and we might even get through foreign policy agreements, banking regulation, etc, while they focus yet again on short term wins.   The look on the face of McConnell and Krauthammer suggest they might not be so sure about even their short term strategy.

ReneDemonteverde
ReneDemonteverde

@jmac You might be right on McConnell but wrong on Charles Krauthammer. This man knows what he speaks of. I would take Krauthammer anyday with his intelligent and insightful analysis over your prattling nonsense in a comment section.

jmac
jmac

@ReneDemonteverde @jmac  Are you talking about the Neocon who pushed for the preemptive invasion of Iraq?   He might be brilliant, but sometimes he's dumb as a doorknob.  

ReneDemonteverde
ReneDemonteverde

@jmac @ReneDemonteverde Who knows what happened if Saddam was not overthrown. With Iraqs pursuit of nuclear weaponry plus the WMDs. It is always convenient to take the easy road. It is the people who decide on your safety that have bear the brunt of speculative comments from you. Just like a couch potato dissecting a Sunday game in his sofa. You know ?

eagle11772
eagle11772

Harry [G]Reid, and the liberal media, only a few years ago vilified the Republicans when they suggested they would use the "nuclear option". Now that Harry [G]Reid has actually don it, I'm sure the liberal media will lionize him. However, Democrats will rue this day in the near future, as I predict they will lose their majority in the Senate in 2014. And then the Republicans will have their VENGEANCE.

jason024
jason024

@eagle11772 Vengance how? They can't nominate anyone w/o the WH and are unlikely to have control of the House AND Senate to override any vetos....

you are going to have to wait until 2016....

Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

@eagle11772 As you predicted McCain and the Sleeping White Giant would romp in 2008?

Delightful. 


Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

Just saw milquetoast Tim Kaine talking tough about about today's vote.

Tough Democrats? Whiny republicans? Times they are a changin'.

jmac
jmac

It's about time!   Hooray for Reid.

McConnell having to say it's about Obamacare tells you how you need to know about Republicans.   I look forward to them getting to put their appointments and judges on when they get in power.   We can't get much worse than Pricilla Owen and Janice Brown so let them put whatever narrow-minded, religious lower court judge (or Bolton appointee) they want.

They're only going to make news and it won't be good news.  

AlphaJuliette
AlphaJuliette

@jmac 

Republicans have one issue to deflect the obstructionism and failure they are responsible for and that is Obamacare.  Meanwhile they are responsible for the obstructing legislation of much needed Immigration Reform, Tax Reform and even putting a real budget together.  Sequestration, which they are staunchly protecting, is doing economic harm to this nation across the board. 

So, yeah, the plan is "let's continue to attack Obamacare no matter what."

AlphaJuliette
AlphaJuliette

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell warned that Democrats would ultimately reap what they sowed.

Of course Mitch McConnell was talking about the Democrats.  He ironically ignores the fact that this move was in response to years of Republican obstructionism.  In short the Republicans have now reaped what they themselves have sown.

Ironic ain't it?

AlphaJuliette
AlphaJuliette

Addendum - This morning I've been looking at the history of the filibuster.  By the looks of it two things are apparent.

1) The use of the filibuster has been dramatically increasing during the Clinton administration to the present.  This means that both sides of the aisle have been using and abusing it for what ever reason. 

2) The increase also points to pure partisan politics. It's a tool of obstructionism and dysfunction that is the norm inside the beltway. 

This chart will illustrate the unbelievable times it has been used against not only Obama but Bush as well.

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/11/21/us/politics/senate-filibusters.html

This represents ideology before the greater good of the nation and is NO WAY to run a government!  But now, after researching the issue, I believe the Democrats have made a mistake that is only going to exacerbate the overall problem.  Witness McConnell's avenging warning on the floor. 

The dysfunction and rancor is only going to get worse.  And We the People will continue to feel the consequences.

outsider
outsider

@paulejb  

Abuse the system, and you're removed from it. 

You should relate Paulie. 

tom.litton
tom.litton

Can we please stop responding to paulejb?  Trolls are like children throwing temper-tantrums.  Giving them the attention they grave only encourages more of that behavior, and weeding through all that nonsense makes it impossible to find legitimate discussions. 

scrimbul
scrimbul

@tom.litton This site would get boring pretty quick if the regulars actually heeded that advice.


I've been lurking for five years, and people don't seem to realize that he and rusty are here solely because they're bored.


The older I get, and this is never more true than in politics, the more you learn there are no adults, there are only big children and little children. The fact that we manage to intentionally keep people like them alive who actively work against their own best interest is astounding.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@paulejb You mean insurance companies issued policies after the ACA was passed that clearly do not meet ACA requirements and not that they have to cancel the stuff the wrote in the first place it is Obama's fault. What a poor sad clown world you live in.