GIVE THANKS early: This morning the United States Senate voted, 52-48, to actually get something accomplished, on the terms of the majority in the United States Senate.
After years of Republican obstruction for the sake of obstruction, and after months of threatening to do it, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid gained a long-contemplated (or threatened) change of the Senate rules, a parliamentary shift that will seriously undercut Republican use of the filibuster on all executive and most judicial appointments, with the exception of those to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The move — the so-called nuclear option — ends the Republican addiction to filibusters, and stops the longstanding requirement of a 60-vote supermajority to advance nominees by President Obama. Now, a simple majority of 51 votes in the body will be required to advance those nominees — a procedural change that The New York Times said was “the most fundamental shift in the way the Senate functions in more than a generation.”
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“The need for change is so, so very obvious,” Reid said on the Senate floor before the vote. “It’s clearly visible, it’s manifest we have to do something to change things. ... Gridlock has consequences, and they’re terrible. It’s not only bad for President Obama, bad for this body — the United States Senate — it’s bad for our country.”
Reid reached back into his Old Testament, invoking a passage from the Book of Numbers: “If a man vow a vow unto the Lord, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth.”
He was indirectly referencing a January pledge by Senate Republicans “to work with the majority on process nominations” for the president’s team “in a timely manner, by unaminous consent, except in extraordinary circumstances.” Reid said that was about three weeks before those Republicans worked early this year to block the nomination of Chuck Hagel — a Republican himself — to be secretary of defense. The Senate GOP left that nomination hang for more than a month.
But the real numbers Reid was talking about were the numbers that changed later that morning, when simple majority arithmetic came to the modern Senate. Under the new rules, the 55 Democrats that comprise the majority of the Senate are actually in control of that chamber of Congress. It’s an end to the tail wagging the dog.
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IT’S BEEN a long time coming. You’re forgiven if you think you’ve heard the phrase “nuclear option” in a legislative context before. Two years ago, Reid invoked such a move to prevent Republicans from forcing votes on amendments to legislation against Chinese currency manipulation with post-cloture filibusters.
That time, the Senate voted by a margin almost identical to today’s vote (51-48) to stop what amounted to filibuster by amendment after senators already voted to move to final passage of a bill.
Today’s vote was a bigger, bolder, wider move upholding the idea that nominees by the executive branch were entitled to a straight up-or-down vote in the Senate — and stopping the outright rejection of those nominees without so much as a hearing.
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“This should be called Obamacare II, because it is another example of the use of raw partisan political party for the majority to do whatever it wants to do any time it wants to do it," Alexander said during a floor speech, as reported by Talking Points Memo.
Arizona Maverick® Sen. John McCain said Democrats “are going to have trouble in a lot of areas, because there’s going to be a lot of anger.”
“Democrats won’t be in power in perpetuity,” Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby said Thursday, to The Washington Post. “This is a mistake, a big one for the long run. ... I think it changes the Senate tremendously in a bad way.”
Senate Minority Leader McConnell made with the darker threats to Democrats. “You will regret this,” he warned today, figuratively waving his fist in the air. “You may regret it a lot sooner than you think.”
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TRUE ENOUGH, history has a way of coming back to bite you in the ass. The new shift in Democratic lawmakers’ attitude toward the filibuster has come 180 degrees since 2005, when Senate Democrats used it against what was then a Republican majority.
Marc A. Thiessen, a visiting fellow at The American Enterprise Institute, took note of that in an October 2011 op-ed in The Washington Post:
“The senator’s name? Harry Reid.
“When Reid was in the minority, the nuclear option was an ‘abuse of power.’ Now that he’s in the majority, it’s simply business as usual.’ ”
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But it’s not business as usual according to 2005; that’s what made Reid’s move this morning necessary in the first place. The difference between 2005 and now is relatively simple: Democratic filibusters in 2005, during the Bush administration, were more targeted, more specifically employed as a tactic against particular instances of legislation on a case-by-case basis.
What we’ve seen from the beginning of the Obama administration is the use of filibusters by Capitol Hill Republicans as part of an orchestrated pattern of obstruction, a tactic intended to stop the Obama White House agenda comprehensively, tout court, across the board, on every piece of legislation with the president’s support or his authorship.
Which was to be expected when, on the night of Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, Republican leadership gathered for a private dinner and took a vow all but secured with blood to bar every legislative initiative of an administration that hadn’t even started working.
And this, mind you, a year and 10 months before McConnell himself would tell National Journal that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."
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JAMELLE BOUIE of The Daily Beast summed it up well: “[Y]ou can’t start a fight and then whine when the other side decides to finish it.”
That’s what happened today. The Democrats took themselves seriously. The bigger question is why Senate Republicans didn’t take Obama and Senate Democrats seriously. The answer precedes what happened today by years:
Since before Obama’s inauguration in 2009, Republicans enforced in their own minds the idea that Obama wasn’t to be taken seriously, an attitude reinforced by everyone from presumably mainstream members of Congress (“You lie!” South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson, shouted at the president in an address in September 2009) to the mouthpieces for and supporters of the leaderless, rudderless Tea Party movement.
When you don’t take someone seriously, it stands to reason that you similarly dismiss that person’s efforts at demonstrating gravitas, competence and ambition. If you don’t take someone seriously, you don’t take anything they do seriously. That’s why McConnell and other Senate Republicans kept playing the filibuster card, secure in their certainty that Reid and the Senate Democrats would never go nuclear. Reinstate a simple majority in the Senate? Renounce the supermajority? They can’t be serious.
Fast forward to today’s reality check. Within minutes of crippling the filibuster as a dilatory tactic, the new simple-majority Senate voted, 55-43, to advance the nomination of Patricia Millett to become a judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit., arguably the second-highest court in America. Debate on her nomination is over; she now awaits confirmation by the Senate, possibly as soon as Friday.
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With filibusters off the table as a Republican option, with a reliably solid Democratic majority in the Senate, the stage is set for the impossible: the breakup of the years-long logjam in judicial and executive-branch nominations.
“I think what we really need is an anti-bullying ordinance in the Senate,” Rand Paul of Kentucky said today to CNN. “I mean, now we've got a big bully, Harry Reid says he's just going to break the rules and make new rules. Never been done this way before.”
Break out the violins. The anti-bullying ordinance Paul calls for is the one we got in the Senate today. It came with a message attached, one Republicans received, reluctantly but for sure: Sometimes, the best way — or the only way — to deal with a bully is to bully the bully right back.
Image credits: Reid: Alex Wong/Getty Images. McConnell: via The Huffington Post. Filibuster history chart: People for the American Way/The Washington Post.