How Many Votes Does It Take to Go Nuclear?

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 21: (L-R) Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) leave the Senate floor and head to a news conference on Capitol Hill, November 21, 2013 in Washington, DC. The Senate voted 52-48 to invoke the so-called 'nuclear option', voting to change Senate rules on the controversial filibuster for most presidential nominations with a simple majority vote.
National Journal
Michael Catalini
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Michael Catalini
Nov. 21, 2013, 3:15 p.m.

When pos­ter­ity looks back on the day Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id, D-Nev., changed the Sen­ate’s rules and asks what play­book he was run­ning, let the re­cord show it took four votes for the Sen­ate to blow up its rules on nom­in­a­tions.

First, the scene: Re­id stood at his lectern as sen­at­ors took their seats on the floor. In the rare cases when the Sen­ate gath­ers en masse on the floor, most tend to look bored, check­ing their phones or cas­u­ally chat­ting with one an­oth­er. But on Thursday, most sen­at­ors listened at­tent­ively to Re­id and then to Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, R-Ky.

Hav­ing filed a mo­tion to re­con­sider Pa­tri­cia Mil­lett’s ap­point­ment to the D.C. Cir­cuit, Re­id ef­fect­ively used her nom­in­a­tion as the in­stru­ment to change the rules.

The Sen­ate’s jar­gon, while ar­cane, has a cer­tain rhythm. And as if this whole pro­cess wer­en’t mind-bend­ing enough, the ac­tu­al vote that res­ul­ted in the rules change saw Demo­crats vot­ing no. That’s be­cause the ques­tion was on up­hold­ing the rul­ing of the chair that 60 votes are needed to end de­bate on nom­in­a­tions.

With that in mind, here’s how each vote went and what you need to know about each.

  • First, there was the mo­tion to pro­ceed to the mo­tion to re­con­sider the mo­tion to in­voke clo­ture on Mil­lett. This ef­fect­ively ended de­bate on re­con­sid­er­a­tion of the clo­ture mo­tion on Mil­lett’s nom­in­a­tion. It was agreed to on a 57-40 vote with three sen­at­ors vot­ing present. All Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­an Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska voted yes. Geor­gia Re­pub­lic­ans Saxby Cham­b­liss and Johnny Isak­son along with Or­rin Hatch of Utah voted present.
  • At this point Mc­Con­nell, per­haps stalling for time to work out a com­prom­ise, moved to ad­journ. That vote failed on a mostly party-line vote of 46-54, with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., vot­ing with Re­pub­lic­ans.
  • Then came a mo­tion to re­con­sider the mo­tion to in­voke clo­ture on Mil­lett. This vote es­sen­tially put the Sen­ate in po­s­i­tion to in­voke clo­ture once again. It was agreed to 57-43, with Collins and Murkowski vot­ing again with Re­id. Cham­b­liss, Isak­son, and Hatch voted with the GOP.
  • After Mc­Con­nell made a few par­lia­ment­ary in­quir­ies, Re­id sought a rul­ing from the chair on wheth­er Sen­ate rules held that it takes 60 votes to in­voke clo­ture on nom­in­a­tions. Preident Pro Tem­pore Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., ruled that they do. Then Re­id ap­pealed the rul­ing. Sen­at­ors were asked wheth­er the de­cision should stand and voted 48-52 against sus­tain­ing the chair’s rul­ing. Re­id lost three Demo­crats: Manchin and Sens. Carl Lev­in of Michigan and Mark Pry­or of Arkan­sas.

At that point, the Sen­ate had of­fi­cially gone nuc­le­ar. Clear as the sound of a gavel com­ing down, right?

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