Washington entered a new era on Thursday when the Senate voted to invoke the “nuclear option,” a technical change to an existing chamber rule that is sure to worsen the acrimony and further the divide between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill.
It’s known as the “nuclear option” because of the broad and serious implications of its deployment. It calls to mind the Cold War, when a nuclear strike by the United States or Soviet Union against the other would all but result in mutually-assured destruction.
The move, which overturned the requirement for a 60-vote majority for most presidential nominees, is an unprecedented power play by Democrats, and one that is sure to reverberate in both the long and short term.
Republicans warned before the vote that the GOP will retaliate should they re-take the majority.
"Some of us have been around here long enough to know that sometimes the shoe is on the other foot," Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said before the vote, telling Democrats "you may regret this a lot sooner than you think."
In the coming weeks, the acrimony could cause meaningful action in the Senate to grind to a halt.
More ominously, future majorities – Democratic or Republican – could use the new rules to run roughshod over the minority party not just for nominations, but most legislative matters.
Frustrated by sustained Republican efforts to block President Barack Obama’s judicial nominees for fear that the ideological balance of several influential courts could be tipped, Democrats took the unprecedented step of upending 200 years of Senate tradition.
Although Democratic and Republican leaders alike have threatened to invoke the “nuclear option” before, none have followed through on their threat until now.
Thursday’s vote “opens a Pandora's Box to further changes in the rules” on a range of issues said Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
Following an ugly government shutdown fight that sent approval of Congress to new lows, Thursday’s vote effectively doubles-down on the brand of scorched-earth politics that have fueled public disgust toward Washington.
The vote was 52 to 48; with three Democrats breaking ranks to join with Republicans in opposition to the change.
It was just a handful of years ago that Reid and Democrats were crying foul at Senate Republicans’ similar effort to change Senate rules to allow easier confirmation of some of President George W. Bush’s judicial appointments, whom Democrats regarded as too conservative.
“I can say from experience that no one's hands are entirely clean on this issue,” Reid acknowledged on the Senate floor Thursday morning before forcing the vote.
Democrats had earlier threatened to invoke the nuclear option this summer, but backed off after a rare, bipartisan joint meeting of all senators. Their agreement to preserve the filibuster broke down, though, after Republicans blocked several of Obama’s appointments to the influential D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Though a majority of the Senate backed each nominee, Republicans insisted that those candidates clear a 60-vote threshold: a de-facto filibuster.
The GOP argued that the court simply didn’t need any more judges to handle its existing workload, rather than picking at the individual nominees' politics or qualifications. But there was an obvious concern that the ideological balance of the court system could be tipped by jurists selected by a Democratic president.
McConnell called Democrats’ move “a fake fight over judges that aren't even needed.”
What does seem certain after Thursday’s vote is that the Senate has entered a new era. The upper chamber has historically prided itself on the rules which distinguish it from the more raucous and sharply political House of Representatives. Specifically, the Senate has been defined by rules which empower the minority party to slow or stop legislation through procedural means, and this week’s rule change is a step toward eroding those rules once and for all.
While Thursday’s “nuclear option” is limited to executive branch and judicial nominees (except for Supreme Court picks), virtually no observer of Congress expects the collateral damage to stop there. Republicans basically broadcast their intention to force future confirmation GOP-selected high court nominees by a simple majority.
“If the Democrats are bent on changing the rules, go ahead,” Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Wednesday. “There are a lot more Scalias and Thomases out there we’d love to put on the bench.”
In the conservative blogosphere, Republican activists were practically giddy about the prospect of a Republican Senate forcing a vote to repeal Obamacare by a simple majority vote by changing the rules, and shutting out a Democratic attempt to use the filibuster to halt such an effort.
In the short-term, Republicans could threaten to further grind Senate proceedings to a halt, especially with a critical defense bill currently up for consideration and another budget and debt deadline looming early next year.
“Actions have consequences. There will be changes out of this,” Manley said, warning progressive activists who have long pushed for such a rules change. The 21-year veteran of Capitol Hill said it wasn’t a particularly proud day for the Senate, “but it may in fact be the only option necessary to rescue the U.S. Senate from its current predicament, where a determined minority can hold up bills important to the American people.”