The term carries a doomsday tone. And Thursday’s vote by the Democratic Senate to impose the “nuclear option” as a way around Republican blocking of judicial nominees is another sad sign of mutually assured bipartisanship destruction in Washington.
Beyond the complexities of Senate rules, and the debates over what is and isn’t constitutional, lies a blatantly self-serving shift in judgment.
Thursday’s legislative power grab erased the ability of the minority party — at this point, the GOP — to threaten a filibuster on court appointments that didn’t get 60 affirmative votes. Now only a simple majority will be needed.
The margin to make that fundamental change also required just a simple majority — 52-48. Three Democrats (Michigan’s Carl Levin, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, Arkansas’ Mark Pryor) joined all 45 Republicans voting against it.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., offered this shaky justification: “The gridlock has consequences. It’s not only bad for President Obama, bad for this body, the United States Senate, it’s bad for our country.”
President Obama predictably hailed the outcome, arguing of the GOP’s judicial-nominee approach: “This isn’t obstruction on substance, on qualifications. It’s just to gum up the works.”
But in 2005, when Republicans held the Senate majority, then-Sen. Obama defended the filibuster option, telling the National Press Club: “You know, the Founders designed this system, as frustrating it is, to make sure that there’s a broad consensus before the country moves forward,”
Also in 2005, then-Minority Leader Reid decried GOP threats to go nuclear to break Democrats’ extended delays of court appointments from President George W. Bush. Sen. Reid warned on the Senate floor: “Violating 217 years of standard procedure in the Senate, changing the rules by breaking the rules, is about as far as you could get from a constitutional option.”
Yes, most GOP senators have undergone a filibuster-attitude adjustment of their own since Democrats took over the chamber — and the White House. Many who once favored the nuclear solution now condemn it as a flagrant end run around the Senate’s time-tested traditions.
However, in 2005, seven Republican senators, including South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, acted as voices of reason by teaming up with seven Democrats to craft a “Gang of 14” compromise to advance judicial nominations.
Unfortunately, Thursday’s filibuster buster was only the latest example of Washington politicians’ inability to meet in the middle.
And even those who find fault with Republican foot-dragging on judicial nominations should be troubled by the ominously named nuclear option.
Sen. Reid put it well eight years ago when Republicans considered that nuclear blow to the Senate’s “deliberative body” essence: “Ultimately, this is about removing the last check in Washington against complete abuse of power, the right to extended debate.”
And ultimately, the nuclear option is bound to spread divisive fallout on Capitol Hill.