The Day of the Senate's Nuclear Devastation May Have Finally Arrived

Philip Bump

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's finger is hovering over the big red button that will launch the Democrats' nuclear attack against the United States Senate. By which we mean that, having secured 51 votes, Reid reportedly plans to advance a change to the body's voting rules that would facilitate the approval of presidential nominees. KABOOM.

That rules change, the much-discussed "nuclear option," is not an insignificant move for Reid. It's not as bad as what happened in, say, Hiroshima in 1945, but it upends a long-standing tradition in the chamber. The problem in the Democrats' view, as we've noted before, is that the Republican minority has consistently blocked administration nominees with the filibuster — a rule that requires 60 votes to overcome in a chamber where Democrats hold a 55 vote majority. Over recent weeks, Republicans have blocked three nominees from President Obama to fill vacant positions on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, a court that hears challenges to broad swaths of federal legislation.

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Speaking from the Senate floor on Thursday morning, Reid noted that nearly half of the nominee filibusters in history occurred under Obama. He declared that, "the American people are fed up with this kind of obstruction and gridlock." As are his colleagues: The Wall Street Journal reports that Reid finally feels confident that he has the votes he needs.

Mr. Reid now has the needed 51 votes to change the rules, said Sen. Michael Bennet (D., Colo.), a member of the Senate Democratic leadership. He said it was "a real possibility'' that Mr. Reid would call a vote on Thursday. "And if he does, he has the votes."

(For what it's worth, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell argued that the Democrats only wanted to change the topic of Obamacare. "I'd want to be talking about something else, too, if I had to defend dogs getting insurance while millions of Americans lost theirs," McConnell said on Thursday.)

At The Washington Post, Ezra Klein outlines why the option is likely to be exercised at this point. First, the Democrats don't have any other way to get Obama's nominees moved forward. Second, Democrats feel like they've already gone far enough in trying to make a deal with the Republicans.

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It's hard to overstate the pride senior Senate Democrats took in cutting their January deal with Senate Republicans. That kind of good-faith dealmaking, they said, was exactly how the Senate is supposed to work. Some even argued it was a sign that immigration reform, gun control, and other top Democratic initiatives might pass.

But then Republicans filibustered more judges and executive-branch nominees. And the pride top Democrats took in their deal to avert filibuster reform has turned to anger that Republicans made them look like trusting fools.

And third: Democrats are confident that the Republicans, given the opportunity, would gut the filibuster rules to their advantage. In fact, the term "nuclear option," meant to suggest that the rules change would devastate the ability of the Senate to work together, was coined in 2003 by The Washington Times, following an interview with Republican Sen. Trent Lott. Lott was hoping to warn Democrats that his party might enact a similar rules change. Now, the tables have turned.

The idea of the Republicans regaining control of the Senate has been a key reason Democrats have been skeptical about the rules change. The Post quotes Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley: "If [Reid] changes the rules for some judicial nominees, he is effectively changing them for all judicial nominees, including the Supreme Court." Grassley's previously threatened that if the Senate regains the White House and Senate, they could force through Supreme Court nominees hated by the Democrats.

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But as NBC's Mark Murray points out, that's a big if. Even if the Republicans win in 2016 and a Republican takes over the next year, that president would have to hope that the Republicans managed to hold a Senate majority in the 2016 races, when Republicans have to defend the vast majority of contested seats. That's not a gimme.

We'll update this post as the vote moves forward. Or, if you live near D.C., just watch for this on the horizon:

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