In their political war against Republican obstruction, Senate Democrats have resorted to weapons of mass destruction, a move that could destroy the few remaining shreds of bipartisanship in the country.
Declaring that it was “time to change the Senate before this institution becomes obsolete,” Majority Leader Harry Reid on Thursday made good on his long-standing threat to eliminate the ability of the minority Republican party to filibuster the vast majority of President Obama’s judicial and executive branch nominees.
The historic move, which succeeded on the votes of 52 Democrats, overturns a rule that the chamber has operated under for generations. Though increasingly fractious in recent years, the Senate has always preserved the ability of the minority – even a single senator – to bring the chamber to a halt. Historically, this has been a tool that the minority could use to force the majority to compromise.
By doing away with the filibuster on most nominees, the Democrats have ended what many have come to view as the tyranny of the minority in the chamber, in which as few as 40 Republicans could obstruct nominees supported by a majority of members. Going forward, senators will be able to end debate on a nominee and send his or her nomination to the floor with a simple majority vote.
Reid’s counterpart in the Republican Party, Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, deplored the move in an angry speech on the Senate floor, reminding his Democratic colleagues that, inevitably, they will be the minority party one day.
“You’ll regret this,” he said, “and you might regret it even sooner than you might think.”
Reid called for the vote shortly after Republicans again refused to allow a vote on Patricia Ann Millett, one of the President’s nominees to sit on the Federal Appeals Court for the District of Columbia. The D.C. court, which hears the majority of challenges to administrative rulings by executive branch agencies as well as many challenges to federal law, has long been a flashpoint in battles over judicial nominees.
Lobbyists for business interests were every bit as enraged as Senate Republicans.
Bruce Josten, executive vice president for Government Affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement, “It is unfortunate that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid moved forward with the ‘nuclear option,’ which we believe will make the Senate more partisan and exacerbate the challenges of bipartisan relations in the current political environment. We believe, while respecting that the Senate determines its own rules and procedures, that the political consequences and long-term implications of the ‘nuclear’ option are all bad. The ‘nuclear option’ opens a political Pandora’s box that will have lasting repercussions.”
In remarks delivered at the White House Thursday afternoon, President Obama said he supported Reid’s move, calling Republicans’ repeated use of the filibuster “unprecedented obstruction” that has been “harmful to our economy and harmful to our Democracy.”
After the vote succeeded, and Republicans failed in a futile attempt to override the decision, Reid immediately called for a vote to end debate on Millett’s nomination, which passed
Reid had put his finger on the button numerous times in recent years, but had always refrained from calling for a vote to change the Senate’s rules when last minute deals were struck. Reid himself has long been a jealous protector of the Senate’s privileges and arcane procedures, but Republicans’ continued obstruction of president Obama’s nominees to fill senior executive branch positions and empty seats on the Federal bench apparently pushed him too far.
A former Reid aide said that the Senator “made the decision in his own mind a while ago that something has to change” but wouldn’t call for a vote until he was sure he had the support of at least 50 other Democrats.
That support apparently coalesced sometime in the past several days, after Republicans on Monday blocked the nomination of Cornelia T. L. Pillard, the last of the President’s three pending nominees to the D.C. circuit court.
Republicans, who have in the past been able to strike deals with Reid to avoid losing their ability to filibuster, suddenly found themselves dealing with a majority leader who was unwilling to negotiate.
“My guess is when [Pillard] failed, Reid decided that was the final straw,” said a senior aide to one Republican Senator.
One current of thought among longtime observers of the Senate is that the Republicans made a calculated decision to push Reid far enough to guarantee that he would go nuclear. The reasoning is that, up to this point, every time Reid has threatened to use the nuclear option, Republicans have made concessions to avoid losing their power to filibuster.
So, the thinking goes, Republicans decided to make Reid actually exercise it, believing that is the Democratic leader is the one who originally pulled the trigger, Republicans will be insulated from criticism if they decide to ignore minority opposition if they take over the Senate in 2014.
Why would Reid agree to eliminate the filibuster, knowing full well that one day his party will be in the minority again? It’s possible that the Democrats, in general, have determined that the only area in which they will be able to advance their agenda at all in the next three years is in judicial and executive branch nominations.
Their ability to get anything substantive done legislatively in the remainder of President Obama’s term is poor at best. Republicans hold the house until January 2015 and may hold the House and Senate thereafter. In either case, absent an unlikely Democratic takeover of the House in the next election, Republicans can block any major efforts.
Without the ability to pass major legislation, the next best thing Democrats can do is make an effort to ensure that their gains – particularly the Affordable Care Act -- are protected. And the surest way to do that is to get Democratic-leaning judges on key courts and Democratic appointees in key administrative positions.
Whatever the rationale for either side, Republicans reacted with outrage to the decision.
“In my view this is the most important and most dangerous restructuring of Senate rules since Thomas Jefferson wrote them at the beginning of our country,” said Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. “It’s another raw exercise of political power to permit the majority to do anything it wants whenever it wants to do it. It is Obamacare II in that sense.”
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