WASHINGTON — In a move that Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) called “the most important and most dangerous restructuring of Senate rules since Thomas Jefferson wrote them,” Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) pushed the button on the long-threatened “nuclear option” today to require a simple majority to move forward President Obama’s judicial nominees.
There were three Democratic defectors — Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) — on the rules change, which came to the floor over the block of three judges intended for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Levin said he was being consistent with his previous opposition when a Republican majority flirted with the nuclear option in 2005.
“Since its creation, the United States Senate has been uniquely committed to protecting the rights of minorities. It has done so in part through its rules governing debate. Its rules protect the right of members to speak until a super-majority is ready to end debate and to proceed to a vote on the matter before it. Matters are then decided by a majority vote, except for treaties, veto overrides and certain points of order,” Levin said on the floor in a lengthy objection to the rules change.
“Today, we once again are moving down a destructive path. The issue is not whether to change the rules. I support changing the rules to allow a president to get a vote on nominees to executive and most judicial positions. This is not about the ends, but means. Pursuing the nuclear option in this manner removes an important check on majority overreach which is central to our system of government. As Senator Vandenberg warned us, if a Senate majority decides to pursue its aims unrestrained by the rules, we will have sacrificed a professed vital principle for the sake of momentary gain.”
Levin, who is retiring in 2015 after six terms, reminded his colleagues of what then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) said during the GOP-era debate: “The nuclear option abandons America’s sense of fair play. It’s the one thing this country stands for. Not tilting the playing field on the side of those who control and own the field.”
Pryor, who faces a re-election fight in 2014, said the use of the nuclear option “could permanently damage the Senate and have negative ramifications for the American people.”
“During my time in the Senate, I’ve played key roles in the Gang of 14 and other bipartisan coalitions to help us reach common-sense solutions that both sides of the aisle can support,” Pryor said. “This institution was designed to protect—not stamp out—the voices of the minority.”
Manchin said he’d proposed a compromise that would require “greater consideration for nominees whose posts outlasted the president.”
“I was willing to support modest changes to make the system more efficient, but my proposal was rejected,” he said. “I voted against the rules changes today because they simply went too far. I firmly believe that the filibuster is a vital protection of the minority views and exactly why the framers of our Constitution made the Senate the ‘cooling saucer.’”
Most Dems hailed the move, with Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) praising Reid on the floor “for leading us into the 21st century.”
“I’ve waited 18 years for this moment,” Harkin giddily added.
The rules change applies to nominees, not legislation, though Obama mingled that into his statement praising what Reid did — raising a more realistic threat of the nuclear option on hot-button issues where Reid has threatened to use it in the past.
“It’s no secret that the American people have probably never been more frustrated with Washington, and one of the reasons why that is, is that over the past five years we’ve seen an unprecedented pattern of obstruction in Congress that’s prevented too much of the American people’s business from getting done,” he said in the press briefing room this afternoon, blaming “arcane procedural tactics” for why Americans are so unhappy.
Obama charged that Republicans have “blocked legislation that might create jobs,” help “women fighting for equal pay” and “striving young immigrants trying to earn citizenship,” and pass “common-sense” gun-control laws in a way that’s “harmful to our democracy.”
“A simple majority vote no longer seems to be sufficient for anything, even routine business through what is supposed to be the world’s greatest deliberative body,” he said. “Today’s pattern of obstruction, it just isn’t normal… for the sake of future generations we can’t let it become normal.”
“Public service is not a game. It is a privilege. And the consequences of action or inaction are very real. The American people deserve better than politicians who run for election telling them how terrible government is and then devoting their time in elected office to trying to make government not work as often as possible.”
The rules change comes in time to help Obama get his Fed chief nominee, Janet Yellen, through the Senate as an increasing number of lawmakers have been coming out against her confirmation — including, this afternoon, Manchin.
It also will help move forward the president’s Federal Housing Finance Agency nominee Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.), who didn’t clear a 60-vote cloture threshold late last month, and Department of Homeland Security nominee Jeh Johnson.