Why Harry Reid finally went nuclear on the Senate's filibuster

Or, how Democrats learned to stop worrying and love the bomb

Harry Reid
(Image credit: (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta))

After a full year of threats, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Thursday finally moved to scrap the Senate's arcane filibuster rules for some presidential nominations, a historic change that ends more than two centuries of Senate precedent.

By a vote of 52-48, the Senate approved the so-called nuclear option, which does away with filibusters on most judicial and executive branch nominees, allowing the Senate to confirm those picks with a simple majority vote. It does not, however, change the filibuster rules surrounding Supreme Court nominees and legislation.

"The American people believe the Senate is broken," Reid said on the Senate floor Thursday, "and I believe the American people are right."

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"The Senate is a living thing and to survive it must change," he added.

Republicans were understandably furious with the announcement, since it will strip them of some procedural power.

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So how did we get here? Why did Reid go nuclear now after backing down in the past?

In a word: Judges. Or, in a few more words, because Republicans have repeatedly blocked President Obama's nominees.

The spat goes back to January, when Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) struck a deal to mildly tweak the filibuster to limit endless procedural stonewalling. The deal was seen as a compromise that would avoid excessive filibuster abuses, with McConnell promising "a return to the norms and traditions of the Senate."

But as the year wore on, and Republicans refused to vote on a growing pile of nominees — including Obama's picks to head the Environmental Protection Agency and Labor Department — Reid dusted off his old threat. Republicans ultimately backed down, allowed the Senate to confirm the big-ticket nominees, and Reid again took his finger off the trigger.

But recently Republicans have blocked three straight picks to the highly influential U.S. District Court of Appeals. Though the court has three vacancies, Republicans have said they don't need to be filled because, as McConnell put it, the court "doesn't have enough work to do."

Democrats cried foul, accusing the GOP of barring nominees not because of any legitimate concerns with their credentials, but simply because they didn't want to let Obama add his preferred judges to a court that leans conservative. Indeed, Republicans have suggested reducing the total number of judges on the bench to keep the court balanced in their favor.

"There isn't a single legitimate objection to the qualifications of any of these nominees," Reid said Thursday.

The GOP's latest tactics put the filibuster debate "in a whole new realm," Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said Wednesday on MSNBC.

"When the minority of one branch can deeply sabotage the functioning of the executive branch and the judicial branch, you do not have co-equal branches," he said. "It is unacceptable and we got to change the rules."

Moreover, Democrats felt that the latest obstruction proved they could no longer trust the GOP's promises to not abuse the filibuster.

"In baseball, it's three strikes and you're out," Merkley said in a statement. "Republicans have struck out when it comes to keeping their promises on nominees."

So though Reid infamously said in 2005 that a filibuster rewrite would be bad precedent, back when Democrats were in the minority, he ultimately changed his tune.

Republicans have warned that the change will be a slippery slope to a further erosion of the filibuster and the protections for the minority party. And more pointedly, they've warned Democrats to watch out when they fall back into the minority.

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