Senate Democrats went nuclear Thursday. They blew up a long-standing Senate rule that allowed the minority party to use filibusters to block most presidential appointments.
While Democrats and Republicans have each threatened over the years to make that most significant procedural change in a generation, the issue exploded this week when Republicans filibustered three of President Barack Obama’s nominees to the prominent appeals court in Washington. Democrats had used the same tactic to block many of George W. Bush’s nominations.
The problem is filibuster abuse. The obstructionist tactic had become so routine in the past decade that the 60-vote supermajority needed to end a filibuster in the 100-member Senate had become the bar for getting almost anything done. The result in the bitterly partisan Senate has been gridlock. Thursday’s historic change was a pragmatic response to that intolerable situation. It could come back to bite Democrats when they’re in the minority. Still, the Senate has to function.
Under the new rule, it will take just 51 votes, rather than 60, to confirm judicial and executive branch nominees. That rule doesn’t apply to bills or Supreme Court nominees. Those can still be filibustered.
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It has traditionally taken 67 votes to alter a Senate rule. Majority Leader Harry Reid used procedural maneuvers to skirt that requirement so only 51 votes were needed to restrict the filibuster. He got 52 votes — 50 Democrats and two independents. Circumventing the need for a supermajority was labeled the “nuclear option” because it signaled the potential to obliterate any remaining comity in the Senate. Members of both parties threatened to go nuclear in the past, but some last-minute deal always allowed them to avoid the mushroom cloud. That no deal was possible this time shows the depth of Senate dysfunction. It was time to give rule by a simple majority a try.