THE NUCLEAR OPTION….Senate Republicans have been muttering recently about invoking the “nuclear option” to stop Democratic filibusters of judges in the Judiciary Committee. This involves asking the Senate parliamentarian to simply declare judicial filibusters against the rules, an action that would leave a smoking crater in longtime Senate rules and open up pretty much every Senate rule to change by fiat too.

How have things come to this pass in the self-styled greatest deliberative body in the world? Let’s take a trip down memory lane.

When Democrats were in power and Republicans were in the minority, senatorial courtesy prevailed in judicial nominations. For decades, the rule was this: if both senators from a judge’s home state objected to (or “blue slipped”) a nominee, he was out. But when Republicans took control of the Senate during the Clinton presidency, these rules no longer looked so good to them:

  • In 1998, for no special reason, Orrin Hatch decided that only one senator needed to object to a nomination. This made it easier for Republicans to obstruct Bill Clinton’s nominees.

  • In 2001, when one of their own became president, Hatch suddenly reversed course and decided that it should take two objections after all. That made it harder for Democrats to obstruct George Bush’s nominees.

  • In early 2003, Hatch went even further: senatorial objections were merely advisory, he said. Even if both senators objected to a nomination, it would still go to the floor for a vote.

  • A few weeks later, yet another barrier was torn down: Hatch did away with a longtime rule that said at least one member of the minority had to agree in order to end discussion about a nomination and move it out of committee.

Nobody even pretended that these changes were guided by any kind of principle. Hatch was simply furious that Democrats dared to object to any of Bush’s nominees, and he intended to put a stop to it even if he had to mow down every Senate rule in the process. It was at that point, with all the options they had granted to Republicans for years denied to them, that Democrats turned to the only one left: the filibuster.

Bottom line: Yes, Democrats are filibustering some of George Bush’s judges, but they’re doing it only because Republicans have relentlessly dismantled all the avenues of dissent they themselves took advantage of back when Democrats controlled the Senate. There’s no principle involved in this, just a raw exercise of power.

Remember that the next time you hear one of them whining about the “unprecedented” use of the filibuster by Democrats. It wouldn’t have come to this in the first place if it weren’t for the unprecedented destruction of senatorial tradition ruthlessly engineered by Senate Republicans over the past six years.