The Senate’s Nuclear Option: What Is It & What Happened To It?

by
Owen Poindexter
Harry Reid struck a deal to avoid going nuclear, but the truth is that the Senate melted down years ago.

filibuster, nuclear option, harry reid, cfpb
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid barely averted going nuclear PHOTO: Reuters

What is the Nuclear Option?

If reports that Democrats are considering the “nuclear option,” and that Harry Reid “has his finger on the button,” have you worried, relax. The first thing to know about the nuclear option is that it is badly named. The nuclear option is a potential change in senate rules that would allow the senate to confirm federal appointees (but not judges) with a simple 51 vote majority, instead of the 60 now currently required to overcome a filibuster.

Republicans threatened to use the nuclear option to push through controversial Bush appellate court nominees, and young Democrats have been eyeing changes to filibuster rules since 2008. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev) was ready to make real changes to filibuster rules after the 2012 elections, but he struck a deal to make those big changes into minor tweaks. Republicans have filibustered nominees and appointees because they object to the applicant’s politics, to the agency they are being appointed to, and sometimes they just want to slow things down so that Obama gets less done in his time as President. Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell famously filibustered himself when Harry Reid called a bluff.

No Nuke this time, but the Senate has already melted down

The recent dust-up that had Harry Reid very close to the nuclear option was over a set of nominees who Republicans didn’t object to personally, but they don’t like the agencies those people were picked to run. The National Labor Relations Board and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are watchdog organizations that are paid to watch labor standards and bank and credit card practices. Most of the affected industries skew their donations toward Republicans.

But back to the nomenclature: why is this potential change in arcane Senate rules called anything as drastic as “the nuclear option?” Because there is the sense that once one party changes the rules, rule-changing becomes the norm, and it will happen any time the Senate changes parties. And yes, that is a danger…but that has essentially already happened. The rules the senate lives by were made with different standards of decorum, different party relations and even different matters. Senates of the past had their own sorts of shenanigans, but it would be unheard of for an entire party to block a cabinet appointment because they opposed the existence of that department. The filibuster was supposed to be for special occasions for a pet cause, not an anonymous block that campaign donors will reward. The Senate rules were written with concerns such as being able to put a hold on a vote so a senator could make it back to Washington by horse-drawn carriage in time to weigh in. Now holds are used simply to make passing bills and approving nominees as difficult as possible. While neither party has changed the rules from the majority, each new minority decides how much they will abuse Senate procedure.

Harry Reid struck a deal to avoid going nuclear, but the truth is that the Senate melted down years ago.

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