November 22, 2013
(Larry Downing/Reuters)
President Obama after announcing support of the ‘nuclear option’ in the Senate. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

The use of the “nuclear option” yesterday sent a clear message about President Obama’s second term: He and congressional Democrats are not messing around.

For the second time in as many months, in the House and in the Senate, they have called the bluff of Republicans whose obstruction of everything has made governing almost impossible. While the short-term successes of each move come with long-term risk, they were risks worth taking.

According to Standard & Poor’s, the 16-day government shutdown took $24 billion out of the national economy. The crazy dance with default once again put into question what was once unquestioned: the full faith and credit of the United States. All because a fevered band of House Republicans insisted on forcing Obama to defund or delay his signature policy achievement, the Affordable Care Act, which was passed by Congress and upheld by the Supreme Court. Any fan of Schoolhouse Rock! could have told them they were on the road to nowhere. Democrats were right to stand up to them.

Changing the Senate rules to end debate on presidential and judicial nominations with a simple majority could come back to bite Democrats if/when Republicans retake the Senate or the White House. In June, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned, “There is not a doubt in my mind that if the majority breaks the rules of the Senate to change the rules of the Senate with regard to nominations, the next majority will do it for everything.” Before Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Democrats went nuclear, McConnell issued a threat: “You’ll regret this,” he said, “and you may regret this a lot sooner than you think.” Still, Democrats were right to ignore him, and Reid made the case during his floor speech.

It’s manifest we have to do something to change things. In the history of our country . . . there have been 168 filibusters of executive and judicial nominations. Half of them have occurred during the Obama administration [during] the last four and a half years. . . .

There are currently 75 executive branch nominees ready to be confirmed by the Senate that have been waiting an average of 140 days for confirmation. One executive nominee to the agency that safeguards the water our children and grandchildren drink and the air they breathe has waited more than 800 days for confirmation. . . .

In addition to filibustering a nominee for secretary of defense for the first time in history, Senate Republicans also blocked a sitting member of Congress from an administration position for the first time since 1843. As a senior member of the House Financial Services Committee, Congressman Mel Watt’s understanding of the mistakes that led to the housing crisis made him uniquely qualified to serve as administrator of the Federal Housing Finance Agency. Senate Republicans simply don’t like the consumer protections Congressman Watt was nominated to develop and implement.  So they denied a fellow member of Congress and a graduate of Yale Law School even the courtesy of an up-or-down vote.

In the last three weeks alone, Republicans have blocked up-or-down votes on three highly qualified nominees to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, considered by many to be the second highest court in the land . . . Today, 25 percent of the D.C. Circuit Court is vacant. There isn’t a single legitimate objection to the qualifications of any of these nominees. Yet Republicans refused to give them an up-or-down vote – a simple yes-or-no vote. Republicans simply don’t want President Obama to make any appointments at all to this vital court.

Further, only 23 district court nominees have been filibustered in the entire history of this country. Twenty of them were nominated by President Obama. With one out of every 10 federal judgeships vacant, millions of Americans who rely on courts that are overworked and understaffed are being denied the justice they rightly deserve. More than half the nation’s population lives in a part of the country that’s been declared a “judicial emergency.”

After the vote yesterday, Obama declared that the “deliberate and determined effort to obstruct everything, no matter what the merits, just to refight the result of an election is not normal.” He added, “And I just want to remind everybody what’s at stake here is not my ability to fulfill my constitutional duty; what’s at stake is the ability of any president to fulfill his or her constitutional duty.”

In their two showdowns since October, Republicans thought the president and Democrats would cave to their ominous threats. Much to their surprise (and to that of more than a few of Obama’s supporters), they didn’t. While the politics of all this are not ideal and are filled with peril now and in the future, Obama, Reid and the Democrats are fighting the right fight. It is one to get government working again and to safeguard majority rule.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj

Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog.