MAJORITY LEADER Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) might be bluffing in his threat to use the “nuclear option” — the extraordinary step of changing big Senate rules by a simple majority vote, rather than the typical two-thirds. But the country shouldn’t have to find out. Cooler heads should prevail, and Republicans should back down.
Mr. Reid last Thursday announced votes on seven presidential nominees, each of whom has waited too long for Senate confirmation. If Republicans successfully filibuster some or all of them this week, the majority leader may hold a simple-majority vote on changing Senate rules so that 41-vote minorities could not block executive nominees. This seems like a fairly modest change — 41 votes could still sustain a filibuster against lifetime judicial nominees, not to mention bills. But the precedent of using a simple majority to alter major points of Senate procedure would be huge. Future Republican majorities would no doubt change other rules to the detriment of future Democratic minorities. A cycle of procedural retribution, fundamentally reshaping the Senate, would be the probable result.
We don’t mean to say that the Senate shouldn’t do anything differently. Republicans and Democrats have abused minority prerogatives in recent years. In the current Congress, Republicans have set a new low by serially delaying Richard Cordray, the president’s choice to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, because they don’t like the structure of the agency, not Mr. Cordray. They buried Gina McCarthy, President Obama’s pick to run the Environmental Protection Agency, in paperwork, delayed her committee vote with procedural trickery and agreed not to filibuster her only after extracting concessions from the EPA unrelated to Ms. McCarthy’s fitness to serve. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) still has a “hold” on Ms. McCarthy as he presses the Obama administration to move on a parochial public works project in his home state that would be fiscally wasteful and environmentally destructive.
But Senate reform will be more durable — and more likely to maintain the chamber’s unique role as an institution that forces the parties to deal with each other — if it comes through bipartisan negotiation, like that which just produced a comprehensive immigration reform bill. If you think that’s impossible, you need only look to the other instances in which Senate leaders considered pressing the nuclear button, only to be pulled back from the brink by compromise.
The best way to defuse the situation would be for at least a handful of calmer heads to agree to move on Mr. Cordray and the other appointees, which would require a certain number of responsible Republicans to step up. Taking away the Democrats’ pretext for changing the rules would not only preserve minority rights, it would also be the right thing to do, at long last, on these nominations. If Republicans refuse to compromise and Mr. Reid precipitously presses forward, they will not be able to hold the majority leader alone culpable for fundamentally altering the Senate. They will share the blame.