“Harry Reid ends senate filibusters with nuclear option,” the headlines screamed. What happened? What does that mean?
Here’s the story. Since the 1850s, there has been a policy in the US Senate that any senator can speak on a pending issue on the Senate floor without limitation. In practice, some senators used this policy to prevent a vote on a matter they opposed such that the measure would fail for lack of an affirmative vote in the Senate.
This became known as a “filibuster,” In 1917 senators modified the practice by adopting Rule 22 which allowed an end to end debate (called “cloture”) providing 2/3 of the senate so voted.
During President Lyndon Johnson’s term in office, Southern Democrats would frequently filibuster proposed civil rights legislation, the record holder being South Carolina’s Sen. J. Strom Thurmond, a Democrat who became a Dixiecrat and then a Republican. Thurmond spoke on the Senate floor for 24 hours and 18 minutes. In 1975 the Senate reduced the number of votes required to invoke cloture from 67 to 60.
In 2005, there were 55 Republican and 45 Democratic senators. President George Bush proposed 10 judicial nominees, and Democrats filibustered all 10, preventing a Senate vote confirming them. Then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) suggested reducing the cloture vote to a bare majority, a proposal dubbed the “nuclear option.”
Traditionalist senators, led by Republican John McCain and Democrat Robert Byrd, cobbled together an alliance of six more Republicans and six more Democrats opposed to tampering with Senate rules. They became known as the “Gang of Fourteen,” and they proceeded to work out a compromise on the Bush nominees, thus avoiding the necessity of the “nuclear option.”
This year it was turnabout. Minority Republicans held up Obama judicial picks, so Reid, with no warning, scheduled a vote on changing Rule 22 to a simple majority on all “advice and consent” votes except Supreme Court. Three Democrat senators joined 45 Republicans, but lost the vote 52-48. The speed of Reid’s action coupled with the partisan divide did not allow for another “Gang of Fourteen,” so it’s a done deal.
Republican leaders denounced the move, calling it “sad,” but surprisingly some thinking moderates and Democrats agreed, though not for partisan reasons. The New York Times’ David Brooks sees it this way: Rule 22 required dialogue and persuasion across party lines. Senators from both parties met socially and generally learned to get along despite partisan differences. Now the Senate will be just like the House, rabidly partisan.
Former Democratic strategist Susan Estridge, now a law professor at the University of Southern California, agreed. In a syndicated column she wrote: “. . . the United States Senate is no longer a functioning institution. The new rules don’t fix things ...” she wrote. “Quite the contrary. The new rules were made because ... ‘leaders’ of this country could not come together to solve the problem. Pitiful. Just pitiful.”
The Hill, a publication for Congress, points out that even this short term “fix” may not fix anything for Reid and Obama. “Winning (51 Democrats’) votes is no sure thing.” the publication wrote and “Republicans could refuse to provide quorums to committees trying to vote on nominees.”
And then there’s turnabout. Of 21 Democratic senators up for reelection in 2014, eight are from red states. Republicans need a pick up of six seats to regain a Senate majority.
If that happens, I hope the new majority will behave more maturely.
Jim Clark is president of Republican Advocates, and has served on the Washoe County and Nevada state GOP Central Committees. He can be reached at email@example.com.