Levin, 79, is a popular 35-year veteran who has been the senior Democrat on the prestigious Armed Services Committee since 1997. Merkley, 57, has been in office less than five years, holds no committee gavels and has yet to usher a major piece of legislation into law.
But on Thursday, Merkley effectively rolled Levin. On a mostly party-line 52 to 48 vote, Democrats eliminated the 60-vote hurdle to clear a filibuster on most presidential nominations.
Merkley became the most prominent anti-filibuster voice, leading a collection of newcomers against the “Old Bulls” of the Democratic caucus who guard their senatorial privilege like a birthright. No bull fought harder against the young bucks than Levin.
There’s no sign of any personal animosity between the duo, and Merkley’s personal online biography boasts of his work with Levin to place limitations on risky financial trades by big banks. But Merkley and Levin have deeply divergent views on the true intentions of the Senate’s founders.
For the first-term senator, the Republican blockade of President Obama’s nominees turned history on its head. The privilege of advising and consenting on a president’s nominees, Merkley said, had turned into “block and destroy.”
“The vote that comes today is the necessary outcome of a series of broken promises,” Merkley, who has never served in the minority, told reporters Thursday. “And it restores, what we did today restores the traditional understanding of advice and consent.”
Levin, who wants to ease confirmation rules, rejected the party-line methods that critics have labeled the “nuclear option.” It was the first time a major rules change or precedent had been adopted without clearing a two-thirds majority, the standard since 1917 as a guarantee that rules would be altered only in bipartisan fashion.
“What this is all about is ends and means. Pursuing the nuclear option in this manner removes an important check on majority overreach,” Levin said in a floor speech after the vote, paraphrasing the 1949 remarks of the legendary Sen. Arthur Vandenberg. “. . . If a Senate majority decides to pursue its aims unrestrained by the rules, we will have sacrificed a professed, vital principle for the sake of momentary convenience.”
Levin, who has served almost half his tenure in the minority, fears the logical next step will be to do away with filibusters of Supreme Court nominations and on legislation. Indeed, some Democrats are already girding for that fight.
“I think that we should get rid of the filibuster for legislation as well as nominations,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), in his first year in the chamber. “So for a lot of us this is only halfway to the finish line.”
Merkley’s victory demonstrated just how much the Senate has changed in the past five years.
The initial push to rein in filibusters began in late 2009, in the wake of the failed “public option” effort to create a government-sponsored health plan to compete with private insurers as part of what became the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Even though there were 60 members of the Democratic caucus at the time, a handful of centrist Democrats opposed the public option, leaving it short of the filibuster hurdle.
The idea died, but liberal activists latched onto the filibuster as their new bete noire. Merkley and Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) took up the cause, pushing for a party-line vote that would change filibuster rules on everything from legislation to nominations.
Back then, however, the Democratic caucus was dominated by Old Bulls. Levin had allies such as Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.), who used his last public appearance to support filibuster rules. These views were shared by many committee chairmen, such as Sens. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.), Kent Conrad (N.D.), Max Baucus (Mont.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Barbara Boxer (Calif.) and Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.)
Byrd died in June 2010, and later that year Dodd and Conrad retired. They joined a mass exodus of senatorial experience and stature over the past five years through death, defeat and retirement.
Now, roughly 60 percent of the 55-member Democratic caucus has served only in the majority. Take Connecticut’s Senate turnover. Dodd and Joseph I. Lieberman (I), who left the Senate at the end of 2012, served a combined 54 years and both opposed the nuclear option.
Their replacements, Murphy and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D), were strong advocates for it.
With pressure mounting, Levin worked on multiple occasions with his longtime friend Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to slightly modify confirmation rules over the past three years.
Merkley refocused the rules change just on nominations, and by the spring he had won a large number of converts in the younger, more partisan Democratic caucus.
Finally, Reid came aboard by July as Republicans were blocking nominees to lower-level agencies. McCain and Reid reached a last-minute deal that cleared those selections — but only put off the inevitable.
Once Republicans filibustered three Obama selections for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit over the past month, Reid was again ready to detonate the rules change. The precedent would lower the threshold to 51 votes for all nominations except those for the Supreme Court, leaving the 60-vote filibuster intact for legislation.
He rounded up the final votes the past few weeks from Feinstein, Boxer and Leahy.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) denounced the effort as a “power grab.” Aside from Reid, McConnell singled out one other Democrat in his long, angry speech: Merkley.
Levin was the only traditional liberal to oppose it, the single Old Bull in opposition.
Merkley took a victory lap in an impromptu news conference.
“Never was the Senate intended to be a deep freeze,” Merkley said. “And yet, that is what it has become under this abuse of the filibuster.”
Asked if there was any way to turn back the clock on filibusters, he demurred.
“The Senate has spoken,” Merkley said.