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The Senate’s new rules

By Ezra Klein,

The Democrats changed the Senate last night. Not a lot. Not in a way you’re likely to notice, or that is even likely to affect anything. But they changed it. They showed it could be done, that the rules of the place weren’t written on stone tablets and handed down from a fiery mountain.

Here’s what happened: Mitch McConnell wanted to bring up the president’s jobs bill, which Harry Reid is still modifying in an effort to win more Democratic votes. He wanted to do so for a simple reason: Sans modifications, the bill would fail and the Democrats would be embarrassed.

McConnell tried a legal but arcane maneuver to suspend the rules after cloture and force a vote. If you didn’t understand that, don’t worry, nobody understands that. It hasn’t been done since 1941. What matters, though, is what happened next.

Reid objected. The Republicans, he said, were being “dilatory,” forcing votes just to waste the chamber’s time. The parliamentarian — the Senate’s umpire — overruled him. But rather than backing off, Reid forced a majority vote on the parliamentarian’s ruling. The vote succeeded, and the rules were changed to outlaw McConnell’s maneuver.

This is known in the Senate as the nuclear option. It is a way to change the rules with a simple majority. It is the same procedure that Bill Frist wanted to use to end the judicial filibuster in 2005. Democrats opposed it bitterly then, and Republicans mostly supported it. Last night, Democrats used the tactic, and Republicans were left in bitter opposition.

It was, in truth, an odd issue over which to go nuclear. Democrats didn’t change a rule in a way that will substantially benefit them or hurt the minority in the coming months. This was, as the Republicans pointed out, the first time either party had even attempted a post-cloture rule suspension this year. Rather, Democrats changed a rule because the Republicans were annoying them. 

Explaining his actions, Reid said, “My friend the Republican leader, candid as he was, said his number one goal was to defeat President Obama. And that’s what’s been going on for nine months here. Let’s get back to legislating as we did before the mantra around here was “Defeat Obama.’ ” But in using this maneuver, Reid and the Democrats made it more likely that it will be used again, perhaps by them, perhaps against them, and perhaps for a change in the rules that will actually matter.  

At the end of the evening, Reid proposed a bipartisan meeting to “talk about some of the frustrations we all have.” The odds that that meeting will solve anything are not high. Remember that Democrats began this session by considering various changes to the filibuster, and Reid and McConnell eventually cut a deal to make some slight tweaks to the rulebook and head off the effort to reform the body’s procedures more substantially. 

But the Senate plainly doesn’t work, and even if some of the members of the body have trouble admitting that, these constant eruptions of near-reform and procedural brinksmanship aren’t going to end until the two parties get together to change the rules in a significant way or one party, using the nuclear option or a close variant, decides to change the rules on its own.

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