If Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) grants Democrats their wish and uses the nuclear option next week, Democrats, along with the country, may face long-term blowback and unintended consequences. The fallout and chaos would fundamentally transform the world’s greatest deliberative body into a glorified version of the House.
Reid threatened to invoke the so-called nuclear option next week to ram through seven of President Barack Obama’s nominees, including Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Other nominees include those to the National Labor Relations Board.
The Senate requires a two-thirds majority to shut down debate to change the chamber’s rules. Reid would seek to change the rules with a simple 51-vote majority. He could then pass a rule that would end debate on executive-branch nominees with 51 votes instead of the traditional 60.
As has been reported, Reid and Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) agreed at the beginning of the 113th Congress that they would not change the Senate rules without “a supermajority as long as Republicans didn’t block the administration’s nominees unless there were ‘extraordinary circumstances.'”
On the Senate floor on Thursday, McConnell (R-KY) took Reid to task saying, “Democrats are gearing up today to make one of the most consequential changes to the United States Senate in the history of our nation. And I guarantee you, it is a decision that, if they actually go through with it, they will live to regret.”
“He’s going to be remembered as the worst leader of the Senate ever,” McConnell said, of Reid. “And it makes me sad… It’s a shame that we’ve come to this.”
McConnell added that the “nuclear option” would “violate every protection of minority rights that have defined the United States Senate for as long as anyone can remember.”
“Let me assure you: this Pandora’s Box, once opened, will be utilized again and again by future majorities — and it will make the meaningful consensus-building that has served our nation so well a relic of the past,” he warned.
Democrats may actually pay a greater price in the future.
If Reid goes nuclear, then Republicans have vowed to defeat Democrats in 2014 (21 seats held by Democrats will be in play) and then use their majority to repeal Obamacare, complete the Keystone pipeline, and ram through other bills that Democrats may abhor.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who filibustered John Brennan’s nomination to head the CIA for nearly 13 hours earlier this year, wrote that if Reid uses the nuclear option, Republicans could demand the Senate consider a rule “stripping the majority leader of the power to prevent amendments to bills” or require a two-third majority to raise taxes.
Democrats, even those who are supporting Reid, recognized McConnell’s warnings in 2005. Then, Republicans, many of whom voted for policies like No Child Left Behind, were in the majority and threatened to use the nuclear option to end the filibuster against President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees. Democrats were outraged.
Then, Senator Barack Obama said that, “one day Democrats will be in the majority again, and this rule change will be no fairer to a Republican minority than it is to a Democratic minority… [W]e need to rise above an ‘ends justify the means’ mentality because we’re here to answer to the people — all of the people — not just the ones wearing our party label.”
Senator Joe Biden also said in 2005:
At its core, the filibuster is not about stopping a nominee or a bill, it’s about compromise and moderation. The nuclear option extinguishes the power of independents and moderates in the Senate. That’s it, they’re done. Moderates are important if you need to get to 60 votes to satisfy cloture; they are much less so if you only need 50 votes. Let’s set the historical record straight. Never has the Senate provided for a certainty that 51 votes could put someone on the bench or pass legislation.
All 100 Senators are reportedly scheduled to meet Monday night to discuss the potential rule changes that would make the Senate more partisan, give no incentive for any Senator to collaborate, and usher in the tyranny of the majority. That would go completely against what the Founding Fathers envisioned.
Though the tale may be apocryphal, Thomas Jefferson told George Washington, after swirling hot tea around in a cool saucer, that the Senate needed to be the saucer into which legislation is poured to cool.
Legislators that have come after have recognized how vital it is for the Senate to “cool” bills passed in the House.
As was recently noted in the Washington Post, Lyndon Johnson, often referred to as “the master of the Senate,” said in 1949 that, “If I should have the opportunity to send into the countries behind the Iron Curtain one freedom and only one… I would send to those nations the right of unlimited debate in their legislative chambers… If we now, in haste and irritation, shut off this freedom, we shall be cutting off the most vital safeguard which minorities possess against the tyranny of momentary majorities.” And former Senator George Mitchell also said that the right of unlimited debate, though it can be abused, is a “rare treasure which you must safeguard.”
Writing against the nuclear option, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) noted, while acknowledging he was engaging in hyperbole, wrote that, “even on a smaller scale, the fallout from a nuclear blast is severe — and it is nearly impossible to tell which way the winds will blow and who will be affected by the fallout.”
Even with the current rules in place, the Senate has passed monstrous pieces of legislation that nobody had read, like Obamacare and, most recently, a comprehensive immigration reform bill. If Reid sets the precedent with the nuclear option, Republicans will immediately suffer setbacks and Democrats will risk suffering some short-term ones of their own if Republicans take control of the Senate in 2014. But the country will ultimately suffer even more long-term consequences by further straying away from the nation’s founding principles.