Feature

The Democrats go ‘nuclear’ on the filibuster

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid eliminated filibusters for most presidential nominations.

What happenedWashington’s bitter partisan divide erupted into open warfare last week after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid took the “nuclear option” of eliminating filibusters for most presidential nominations. Reid’s controversial move, which broke decades of Senate tradition, came after years of minority Republicans using filibusters to block President Barack Obama’s judicial and executive appointments—most notably three nominees to the powerful D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Traditionally, 60 votes were required to overcome such filibusters, but after last week’s 52–48 vote, only a simple majority of 51 is needed to secure all appointments except Supreme Court nominees. The Senate is now expected to approve a series of stalled Obama nominations on party-line votes. “In the history of the republic, there have been 168 filibusters of executive and judicial nominations,” said Reid. “Half of them occurred during the Obama administration. These nominees deserve at least an up-or-down vote.”

Outraged Republicans attacked the rule change as a damaging and hypocritical power grab, pointing out that Democrats repeatedly used the filibuster against George W. Bush’s nominees. “You think this is in the best interests of the United States Senate and the American people?” asked Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. “I say to my friends on the other side of the aisle, you’ll regret this. And you may regret it a lot sooner than you think.”

What the editorials said“Democrats had little choice but to change the filibuster rule,” said The New York Times. Though both parties are guilty of using the procedure, conservative senators have relentlessly abused it in the last five years, blocking “dozens of perfectly qualified candidates.” As a result, the National Labor Relations Board has been left crippled, while a staggering 20 of Obama’s district court nominees were needlessly filibustered—compared with just three under all previous presidents. Reid’s move will finally “turn the Senate back into a functioning legislative body.”

Liberals will live to rue their decision, said The Wall Street Journal. The new rules only empower Democrats for as long as they control the White House and Senate, and set a precedent for Republicans “to exploit in the future.” With bipartisan approval no longer a requirement, the next GOP president should line up outspokenly conservative judicial nominees “like planes waiting to take off at O’Hare International Airport.” The Democratic majority was justified in its grievance, “but not in its rash action,” said The Washington Post. The judiciary is now bound to get more extreme, the partisanship of Washington more poisonous, and American democracy “that much poorer.”

What the columnists saidDemocrats clearly have short memories, said Dana Milbank in The Washington Post. When a Republican Senate majority “threatened to use a similar nuclear option” to empower the majority in 2005, liberals reacted with horror at the prospect of turning the consensual Senate into a “clone” of the mob-ruled House. But now that they’re in power, said Megan McArdle in Bloomberg.com, those same Democrats—backed by Obama—are happy to scrap Senate tradition in order to pack “as many liberal justices and appointees onto the courts and bureaucracies as they can.”

Obama’s attempt to fill judicial vacancies with people of his choosing isn’t “packing,” nor is it “untoward or authoritarian,” said Alec MacGillis in NewRepublic.com. It’s one of the “age-old benefits of winning two elections in a row.” What is unconstitutional is the GOP’s “brazen” attempt to nullify his 2012 victory by preventing Obama from implementing his legitimate agenda. Now, Democrats can use that victory to their advantage; and yes, Republicans can of course do the same, if they win the presidency and the Senate in the future.

But “majority rule is not intrinsically democratic,” said Eric Posner in Slate.com. It was the “tyranny of the majority” that produced Jim Crow laws in the South, remember. Filibusters had the virtue of forcing majority parties toward moderation, since extremist nominees were likely to be blocked. We won’t see gridlock in this new nuclear wasteland of a Senate. But there will be clear losers: “those in the center, meaning most of us.”

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