The Senate is debating whether or not to strike down the long-standing filibuster rules for most presidential nominations, potentially altering nearly 225 years of precedent. The so-called “nuclear option’ would allow for swift confirmation of executive branch nominees and most selections for the federal judiciary without having to clear a 60-vote hurdle.
Check here for the latest updates from the debate.
So what’s at stake today?
Only 225 years of precedent.
The Senate is on the verge of striking down the long-standing filibuster rules for most presidential nominations, potentially doing so on a party-line vote that would alter nearly 225 years of precedent.Democrats, infuriated by what they see as a pattern of obstruction and delay over President Obama’s nominees, expect to trigger the showdown by bringing up one of the recent judicial nominees whom Republicans blocked by a filibuster. According to senior Democratic aides, Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) will set in motion a complicated parliamentary process that ends with a simple-majority vote setting a new rule that will allow for swift confirmation of executive branch nominees and most selections for the federal judiciary without having to clear a 60-vote hurdle. If Democrats go through with the threat, it will allow for confirmation of several nominees to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit who have recently been stymied by GOP filibusters, amid Republican assertions that the critical appellate court simply did not need any more judges.The impact of the move is more far-reaching, however. The means for executing this rules change — a simple-majority vote, rather than the long-standing two-thirds majority required to change the chamber’s standing rules — is more controversial than the actual move itself.
Many Senate majorities have thought about using this technical maneuver to get around centuries of parliamentary precedent, but none has done so in a unilateral move. This marks at least the fourth time in three years that Reid has rattled his saber on the filibuster rules, each time yielding to a bipartisan compromise brokered by the chamber’s elder statesmen.
As of Wednesday night, no bipartisan talks had emerged. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the main negotiator who brokered recent deals to avert such a showdown, as well as one in 2005, met with Reid on Wednesday, but neither side reported progress.
The main protagonists for the rules change have been junior Democrats elected in the last six or seven years, who have alleged that Republicans have used the arcane filibuster rules to create a procedural logjam that has left the Senate deadlocked. Upon arriving in 2009, Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) said, he found that “the Senate was a graveyard for good ideas.”
Political watchers may have a sense of deja vu watching this whole debate, particularly given that Democrats have threatened to push the “nuclear” button before — several times.
In fact, this is at least the fourth time in three years that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has threatened to change the chamber’s rules. Every previous time, the two sides have come together to avoid such a scenario.
This time, it seems he means it.
Here’s what the Post’s congressional ace Paul Kane told The Fix this morning:
Yep, Fix, we’ve hit Defcon 1. The trigger is set to be pulled sometime Thursday, according to my sources. (For those who forget the rankings, Defcon 5 is the shiny-happy-people level, and Defcon 1 is basically the missiles have/will soon have launched.)
John McCain, who has been in the middle of the three or four previous deals to defuse the trigger, met with Harry Reid Wednesday to discuss the issue, but aides reported no progress. Last time this happened — a fight that culminated with a three-plus-hour marathon closed-door meeting of almost all 100 senators in the Old Senate Chamber, on my birthday, July 15, no less — Democrats gave the Republicans an opt-out: confirm a bunch of nominees to the NLRB etc. McCain rounded up enough Republicans to support those nominees and the issue was defused.
This time around, Democrats have pushed three nominees to the crucial D.C. circuit court, which handles most of the critical cases on interpreting federal law. The Rs say the court — which tilts toward GOP-appointed judges at the moment — doesn’t need any more judges. And McCain’s gang of GOP senators agreed, blocking all 3 of Obama’s nominees.
Dems feel they’ve no other options, aside going nuclear. What does that entail? It means changing the chamber’s precedents and rules on a simple majority vote, something that has never happened in the roughly 225-year history of the so-called world’s greatest deliberative body.
That’s because the Senate has always considered itself a “continuing body” since only a third of its members are elected every two years, and its rules live on through each and every Congress. (The House is different and adopts new rules at the start of each Congress every two years, and even adopts rules for how to consider each and every major piece of legislation.)
Because of this historical impact, when the simple majority rules change was proposed about decade ago — by the Republican majority at the time, trying to overcome a Democratic-led filibuster blockade — GOP Senator Trent Lott dubbed it the “nuclear option.” At the time, Reid was minority leader and promised that the “nuclear fallout” would be even more gridlock in a chamber that is already, well, slow moving. But a McCain-led “Gang of 14” averted that crisis, which was finally defused in May 2005 after a few years of war drums.
We shall see how Republicans respond to Reid’s pulling of the nuclear trigger.
After some unrelated remarks as the chamber opened, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) began talking about the issue at hand shortly before 10:40 a.m.
Reid argued that the obstruction from the minority party is “unprecedented” and said a change is called for.
“It’s manifest we have to do something to change things,” Reid said.
Reid argued that the Senate has wasted way too much time on things that should be relatively routine — like approving judges.
“It’s time to change the Senate before it becomes obsolete,” Reid said.
In a sign of the day’s significance, all but a handful of the chamber’s 100 senators are in their seats listening as Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) begins the proceedings. The remaining senators are expected to arrive momentarily.
The last time this occurred was in late June when the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform measure. Before that, it was in January when the new session began.
A big reason Harry Reid may succeed in changing the Senate’s rules today is the loss of so-called “old bulls” — i.e. longtime senators — who have long been resistant to changing the chamber’s rules.
Here’s what the Post’s Karen Tumulty (then at TIME) wrote with colleague Massimo Calabresi about the generational split in 2005:
The U.S. Senate is a chamber split in two–two parties, two ideologies and, at times last week, two different centuries. There was majority leader Bill Frist accusing the Democrats of trying “to kill, to defeat, to assassinate” President Bush’s judicial nominees, and Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania comparing the Democrats’ audacity to Hitler’s–a charge so harsh he later had to apologize. To show what he thought of Frist, New Jersey’s Frank Lautenberg carted in a poster of actor Ian McDiarmid playing the diabolical Supreme Chancellor Palpatine of Star Wars: Episode III–Revenge of the Sith. “In a far-off universe, in this film, this leader of the Senate breaks rules to give himself and his supporters more power,” Lautenberg said. Then he quoted another character from the movie saying, “This is how liberty dies.”
One floor below, off an ornate corridor adorned with 19th century frescoes, two Senators who rarely vote the same way on anything were doing things the old-fashioned way: putting their silver heads–and their combined 72 years of Senate experience–together in an effort to pull their less seasoned colleagues back from the brink. Virginia Republican John Warner and West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd had each brought a copy of the Constitution and were poring over Alexander Hamilton’s “Federalist No. 66″ to see if they could discern precisely what the Founding Fathers meant when they gave the Senate the power to advise the President on whom he appoints. The talks had begun the day before, when the two ran into each other by chance in the Russell Senate Office Building and Byrd all but begged Warner: “We’ve got to see what we can do.”
We would note that it’s even more pronounced today. As I wrote on The Fix earlier this year, seven years ago, there were 44 senators who had served at least three terms; at the start of this Congress, there were 32.
In addition, about half of the Senate had served one term or less.
From the Wonkblog’s Dylan Mathews:
On Nov. 18, Senate Republicans successfully filibustered the nomination of Robert Wilkins to join the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, making him the third Obama nominee to that court to be blocked on the Senate floor in the past month. Patricia Millett’s nomination was blocked on Oct. 31, and Nina Pillard’s was halted on Nov. 12.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took to the floor after Reid to argue that Democrats are engaging in a power grab and suggested they will regret their decision when Republicans are back in control of the chamber.
“We’re not interested in having a gun put to our head any longer,” McConnell said, adding: “Some of us have been around here long enough to know that the shoe is sometimes on the other foot.”
McConnell then addressed Democrats directly.
“You may regret this a lot sooner than you think,” he said.
McConnell held out the health-care law known as Obamacare as an example of such power grabs. (Senate Democrats used a work-around to pass that legislation after losing their 60th vote in the Senate when Scott Brown won a special election in Massachusetts.)
“The parallels between this latest skirmish and the Obamacare push are just too obvious to ignore,” McConnell said.
McConnell then read a number of comments from Reid suggesting he wouldn’t change the rules for confirming judges — the implication being that Reid went back on his word.
“He might as well have said, ‘If you like the rules of the Senate, you can keep them,’” McConnell said, borrowing from President Obama’s broken promise on how people could keep their current health insurance if they wanted to.
McConnell said Democrats are trying to change the subject from the troubled health-care law implementation.
“If I were a senator from Oregon, for example, which hasn’t enrolled a single person for the Obamacare exchanges, I’d probably want to talk about something else too,” McConnell said.
The Senate is on the verge of striking down nearly 225 years of precedent by ending the long-standing filibuster rules for most presidential nominations, a remarkable change in procedure that has been the subject of a years-long fight between Democrats and Republicans.
First in 1917 and then in 1975, the Senate formally set up rules for “cloture motions,” the name given to the parliamentary device to shut down debate. It requires the affirmative votes of 60 sitting senators.
The Senate is now holding a procedural vote to reconsider the nomination of Patricia Millett to serve on the D.C. Circuit Court. Millett’s nomination was blocked by Republicans on Oct. 31.
This is the the first vote of the day and is expected to set the stage for a complicated set of maneuvers that will allow for the rule change, which would allow nominations like Millett’s and executive branch picks to be confirmed by a simple majority.
A Twitter user has a worthwhile note about Mitch McConnell’s threat that Democrats may soon regret this.
McConnell’s implication, of course, is that Republicans may soon control the chamber and Democrats would no longer be able to block their judicial nominees and executive branch picks.
The Twitter user notes that a majority of the Senate Democratic caucus has never served in the Senate minority — i.e. they may not know what it’s like to lose such power.
@AaronBlakeWP has a good point on filibuster. Majority of Dem caucus has never served in minority.
— Daniel Sattelberger (@DanSattelberger) November 21, 2013
In fact, three-fifths have no idea what the minority feels like; 33 of 55 Senate Democrats began serving in 2007 or later — after the Democrats reclaimed the chamber.