Senate Democrats Go ‘Nuclear’ to Curb the Filibuster

  • Share
  • Read Later
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