The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Harry Reid caused Donald Trump’s very conservative Cabinet

Harry Reid. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Donald Trump's Cabinet picks will begin to parade to Capitol Hill for their confirmation hearings next week. They represent, without question, one of the most conservative Cabinets in modern presidential history. And yet, despite lots of talk from Democrats and their affiliated outside groups, there doesn't appear — today — to be any Trump Cabinet pick in serious danger of not being confirmed.

The reason? Harry Reid.

No, Reid, the longtime senator from Nevada, isn't in elected office anymore. But it's a change to filibuster rules — long known as the “nuclear option” — that he pushed through in the fall of 2013 that is likely to allow Trump to get virtually every one of his nominees through the Senate.

For the 40 years before November 2013, a president's Cabinet picks needed to win the support of 60 senators to advance to a confirmation vote. What that usually meant is that a president needed to pick someone (or someones) who could reasonably expect to peel off some not-insignificant amount of support from the other side of the aisle.

Reid, frustrated by a long-standing blockade by Senate Republicans of President Obama's nominees to federal judgeships, changed all of that. Wrote WaPo's Paul Kane, presciently, at the time:

Democrats used a rare parliamentary move to change the rules so that federal judicial nominees and executive-office appointments can advance to confirmation votes by a simple majority of senators, rather than the 60-vote supermajority that has been the standard for nearly four decades.
The immediate rationale for the move was to allow the confirmation of three picks by President Obama to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit — the most recent examples of what Democrats have long considered unreasonably partisan obstruction by Republicans.
In the long term, the rule change represents a substantial power shift in a chamber that for more than two centuries has prided itself on affording more rights to the minority party than any other legislative body in the world. Now, a president whose party holds the majority in the Senate is virtually assured of having his nominees approved, with far less opportunity for political obstruction.

That is, of course, exactly what is now happening.

In a world in which 60 votes would be needed to assure a confirmation vote on a Cabinet pick, Trump and his Senate GOP colleagues would have needed to find eight Democratic votes for each of these nominees. Some, like transportation secretary nominee Elaine Chao, wouldn't have had much of a problem doing that. But, for the likes of attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions or secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson, the confirmation process could have been much, much more difficult in a world where the nuclear option hadn't been triggered.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) acknowledged as much in an interview Thursday with conservative radio talk shot host Hugh Hewitt:

Politics is a pendulum. It swings to one side and then, predictably and always, swings back to the other.

Reid knew that when he made the decision to invoke the nuclear option. What he didn't know — and no one knew — is that Donald Trump would run for president. Or that he would win. Or that Republicans would win back the Senate in 2014 and, somewhat miraculously, keep control through the 2016 election.

But all of that happened. And what it means is that barring lots of unreported — and controversial — revelations tied to Trump's nominees, he is likely to get almost everyone he wants. And that is a Cabinet considerably more conservative than any recent president.

That fact can be traced directly back to that fateful day in November 2013 when Reid damned the torpedoes and pressed the button no previous Senate leader had been willing to press. “The American people believe the Senate is broken, and I believe the American people are right,” Reid said that day. “It’s time to get the Senate working again.”

The Senate will be working next week. Just not the way Reid envisioned it.