Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) was one of only three Democrats to oppose ending the filibuster on executive and most judicial appointments in the Senate on Thursday. Levin’s dissent is noteworthy: he chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, which oversaw one of the most contentious confirmation fights in recent memory earlier this year with the battle over the nomination of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense.
Levin gave a partisan but nonetheless praiseworthy speech on the Senate floor explaining why he opposed what President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid planned to do. He supported changing the rules, he said, but not by a simple majority vote, which not only violated the traditions of the Senate but also set the stage for Republicans to do the same in the future–and on legislative matters, too:
So why do I not join my Democratic colleagues in supporting the method by which they propose to change the rules? My opposition to the use of the nuclear option to change the rules of the Senate is not a defense of the current abuse of the rules. My opposition to the nuclear option is not new. Republicans threatened in 2005 to use the nuclear option in a dispute over judicial nominees. I strongly opposed their plans, just as Senator Kennedy did, Senator Biden did, Senator Byrd did, and just about every Senate Democrat did, including Democrats still in the Senate today….
My position today is consistent with the position that I took then, that every Senate democrat took then, and that’s just back in 2005. That was to preserve the rights of the Senate minority. I can’t ignore that.
Nor can I ignore the fact that Democrats have used the filibuster on many occasions to advance or protect policies that we believe in….
And let us not kid ourselves. The fact that we changed the rules today just to apply to judges and executive nominations does not mean the same precedent won’t be used tomorrow or the next year or the year after to provide for the end of a filibuster on legislation, on bills that are before us, and on amendments….
No Senate majority before us has assumed to change the rules at the will of the majority. Before we do something that cannot easily be undone — and we have now done it — before we discard the uniqueness of this great institution, let us use the current rules and precedents of the Senate to end the abuse of the filibuster. Surely we owe that much to this great and unique institution.
Levin wrongly accused the Republicans of obstructionism, ignoring President Obama’s own admission that his nominees to the bench have been confirmed at the same pace as that of previous presidents. The few nominees that Republicans have stopped have been part of a Democrat effort to pack the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears important regulatory cases, with administration-friendly nominees.
That, in turn, is part of a pattern of bad faith, in which President Obama has nominated highly ideological candidates to judicial and executive posts. In July, he agreed to withdraw one such nominee to the National Labor Relations Board–then simply nominated him to be the NLRB’s general counsel. The president has even resorted to false and unconstitutional recess appointments to impose his executive will.
Yet for all the one-sidedness of Levin’s speech, it was still fundamentally sound, grounded in principles once shared by leaders who understood the danger of unchecked majoritarianism. In 2005, then-Sen. Obama declared that “majoritarian absolute power on either side” was “not what the founders intended.” Those sentiments, like most Obama pronouncements, were false. Carl Levin, by contrast, is true to his word.