On April 13, 2005, then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) stood up on the Senate floor to oppose efforts to invoke the so-called “nuclear option”–the same strategy that Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) implemented on Thursday.
“Mr. President, I rise today to urge my colleagues to think about the implications of what has been called the nuclear option and what effect that might have on this Chamber and on this country,” Obama said. “I urge all of us to think not just about winning every debate but about protecting free and democratic debate.”
Obama added that if the nuclear option was invoked, partisanship would “get worse.”
The American people want less partisanship in this town, but everyone in this chamber knows that if the majority chooses to end the filibuster, if they choose to change the rules and put an end to democratic debate, then the fighting, the bitterness, and the gridlock will only get worse.
Right now we are faced with rising gas prices, skyrocketing tuition costs, a record number of uninsured Americans, and some of the most serious national security threats we have ever had, while our bravest young men and women are risking their lives halfway around the world to keep us safe.
These are challenges we all want to meet and problems we all want to solve, even if we do not always agree on how to do it. But if the right of free and open debate is taken away from the minority party and the millions of Americans who ask us to be their voice, I fear the partisan atmosphere in Washington will be poisoned to the point where no one will be able to agree on anything. That does not serve anybody’s best interest, and it certainly is not what the patriots who founded this democracy had in mind. We owe the people who sent us here more than that. We owe them much more.
Obama was hardly the only Democrat in the Senate to oppose such measures. Then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) said his vote against the nuclear option was the “single most significant vote” cast in his 32 years in the U.S. Senate.
“Mr. President, my friends and colleagues, I have not been here as long as Senator Byrd, and no one fully understands the Senate as well as Senator Byrd, but I have been here for over three decades,” Biden said on May 23, 2005, on the Senate floor.
This is the single most significant vote any one of us will cast in my 32 years in the Senate. I suspect the Senator would agree with that. We should make no mistake. This nuclear option is ultimately an example of the arrogance of power. It is a fundamental power grab by the majority party, propelled by its extreme right and designed to change the reading of the Constitution, particularly as it relates to individual rights and property rights. It is nothing more or nothing less.
Biden added at the time that what Reid has now done was a “naked power grab” and that he “pray[s] God when Democrats take back control [of the Senate]” they wouldn’t invoke the nuclear option.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the likely 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, spoke out against the nuclear option on May 23, 2005 in the U.S. Senate, when she said to “maintain the integrity” of the body, the Senate should not do what Reid is now doing.
“And I just had to hope that maybe between now and the time we have this vote there would be enough Senators who will say: Mr. President, no. We are sorry, we cannot go there,” Clinton said on the Senate floor. “We are going to remember our Founders. We are going to remember what made this country great. We are going to maintain the integrity of the U.S. Senate.”
Finally, on May 18, 2005, even Harry Reid spoke out against the very tactic that he has now enacted.
“The filibuster is not a scheme and it certainly isn’t new. The filibuster is far from a procedural gimmick,” Reid said at the time.
It’s part of the fabric of this institution we call the Senate. It was well-known in colonial legislatures before we became a country, and it’s an integral part of our country’s 214-year history. The first filibuster in the United States Congress happened in 1790. It was used by lawmakers from Virginia and South Carolina who were trying to prevent Philadelphia from hosting the first Congress. Since then, the filibuster has been employed hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times. It’s been employed on legislative matters, it’s been employed on procedural matters relating to the president’s nominations for Cabinet and sub-Cabinet posts, and it’s been used on judges for all those years. One scholar estimates that 20 percent of the judges nominated by presidents have fallen by the wayside, most of them as a result of filibusters. Senators have used the filibuster to stand up to popular presidents, to block legislation, and, yes, even, as I’ve stated, to stall executive nominees. The roots of the filibuster are found in the Constitution and in our own rules.