For several years, the “nuclear option” has had a fairly specific meaning. The strategy is procedurally complicated, but the gambit is about finding a way around Senate Rule 22, which says 60 votes are needed to end debate, and 67 votes are needed to change the rules of the chamber. The nuclear option is intended to change the rules with 50 votes — instead of 67 — to, in effect, make filibusters impossible.
There was a fair amount of drama in the Senate last night, but to call this the nuclear option is an exaggeration.
In a shocking development Thursday evening, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) triggered a rarely used procedural option informally called the “nuclear option” to change the Senate rules.
Reid and 50 members of his caucus voted to change Senate rules unilaterally to prevent Republicans from forcing votes on uncomfortable amendments after the chamber has voted to move to final passage of a bill.
Reid’s coup passed by a vote of 51-48, leaving Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) fuming.
McConnell, described as “visibly angry and shaken,” fumed to his colleagues, “We are fundamentally turning the Senate into the House. The minority’s out of business.” A GOP staffer added, “Just wait until they get into the minority!”
Senate Republicans’ larger argument about unilateral rule-changing is not without merit. Reid didn’t execute the nuclear option, but his move last night was, shall we say, inspired by the nuclear option. The actual nuclear option would constrain or eliminate filibusters — or at least certain kinds of filibusters — and Reid’s move doesn’t do this at all.
To appreciate what’s transpired, it’s worth taking a step back and considering what’s unfolded over the last several days. The Senate is poised to consider a bill on Chinese currency manipulation, but McConnell is desperate to play games with the American Jobs Act, trying to force it onto the China bill as an amendment. The goal is to get at least some Democrats to vote against the jobs bill, so Republicans can run around claiming “bipartisan opposition” to the proposal.
McConnell was so desperate to pursue this, he was poised to rely on a rarely-used Senate tactic that would have required a two-thirds majority to pass the American Jobs Act. Dems would have voted against the stunt en masse, well in advance of the actual vote on the jobs bill next week, allowing GOP members to claim Senate Democrats were responsible for voting down the bill, even though that wouldn’t really be true.
Reid decided last night to end the GOP game, using a ruling from the chair to lower the boom — if a bill has overcome a filibuster on the motion to proceed, and then overcome another filibuster on the floor before a final vote, the minority can’t engage in another de facto filibuster with amendment stunts. David Waldman does a nice job explaining this in more detail.
Is there a concern among Democrats that this will come back to haunt them when there’s a Republican majority? As a practical matter, Dems don’t much care about ending this particular practice, since bills can and will still be blocked by filibusters. The larger concern is over the precedent — as Brian Beutler noted, “[T]he only danger for Senate Democrats — as with setting any new precedent — is that an opportunistic future GOP majority will seize upon what happened Thursday as an excuse to make much bigger, broader changes to parliamentary procedure, perhaps even nixing the filibuster.”