FOR ANYONE concerned with preserving the unique character of the Senate, the good news is that the chamber on Tuesday barely averted a potentially earth-shaking vote on how it operates. The bad news is that it took another manufactured crisis for the Senate to do one of its core jobs — confirm qualified nominees to executive-branch positions.
Republicans had wantonly exploited Senate rules to delay or kill action on presidential appointments they didn’t like. They stalled or prevented up-or-down confirmation votes on obviously qualified nominees because they objected to the organizations those nominees were tapped to lead. The reply that Democrats had abused the rules from time to time in the past decade doesn’t pass the two-wrongs test, to say the least.
Exasperated, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) threatened to rally his Democrats to change Senate rules, barring filibusters on nominees to the executive branch. What made this plan controversial — the “nuclear option” — is that the Democrats would have changed the rules with only 51 votes, not the typical 67. For the first time, a narrow, partisan majority would have forced big rules changes on the minority, a precedent that, if repeated, could have led to a fundamental reshaping of the Senate.
Instead, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) took the political risk of brokering a last-minute deal with the Democrats that helps President Obama. Enough Republicans will break ranks to quash filibusters on President Obama’s nominees, beginning with Richard Cordray, whose nomination to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was finally confirmed Tuesday. In return, Mr. Reid will not seek rules changes. Something like this should have happened in the first place — fair treatment of executive nominees — without the threat of going nuclear.
Both sides emerge from this deal still brandishing the weapons they held going in. Republicans will still be able to filibuster pretty much anything. Democrats will still be able to threaten to change the rules by a simple-majority vote.
The need to stage grand confrontations with amped-up stakes to accomplish routine legislative business is, to put it mildly, not healthy for Congress or the country. Bringing the Senate back into order requires the minority — currently the Republicans — to refrain from abusing its many privileges. Filibusters, senatorial holds and other tactics of obstruction should be used rarely, not as a matter of routine, as the GOP has done. To promote that goal, both parties should continue to reform Senate rules by negotiation. This has so far produced small but durable changes to how the chamber functions.
Over the past month, the Senate has demonstrated that it can get some things done. It passed a bipartisan immigration reform bill with 68 votes. Mr. McCain and Mr. Reid showed Tuesday that compromise is still possible on politically difficult matters. But lawmakers can’t take pride in a Senate that is just one notch above dysfunctional. The latest episode should encourage them to seek a Senate that works.