How Harry Reid Pulled the Nuclear Trigger in the Senate

The move was also another notch in a string of high-profile victories Reid has delivered for the Obama administration in recent weeks.

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 21: (L-R) Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL) talk to reporters about the use of the 'nuclear option' at the U.S. Capitol 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 and Elahe Izadi
See more stories about...
Michael Catalini Elahe Izadi
Nov. 21, 2013, 3:23 p.m.

Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id faced a de­cision: He could pre­serve the right of the Sen­ate minor­ity — know­ing that Demo­crats might someday be back in that po­s­i­tion — or he could strengthen his party’s hand right now.

As soon as he had the votes, he went with the lat­ter.

In a his­tor­ic roll call vote shrouded in Sen­ate ar­cana, Re­id de­cided he wanted a func­tion­al ma­jor­ity, chan­ging the fili­buster rules to give his 55-mem­ber con­fer­ence powers it has nev­er had be­fore and adding sub­stan­tially to the mark he will leave on the up­per cham­ber.

The move was also an­oth­er notch in a string of high-pro­file vic­tor­ies Re­id has de­livered for the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion in re­cent weeks. Dur­ing the gov­ern­ment shut­down, he pro­cured the votes on a series of dif­fi­cult meas­ures that thwarted Re­pub­lic­an goals. Now he’s cleared the way for Pres­id­ent Obama to ap­point the ex­ec­ut­ive and ju­di­cial nom­in­ees he wants.

“This is a ter­rif­ic vote for the U.S. Sen­ate,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., a vo­cal pro­ponent of chan­ging the rules. “The Sen­ate is a cool­ing sau­cer, but nev­er was the Sen­ate in­ten­ded to be a deep freeze.”

The Sen­ate began work this week with a series of bell­weth­er Demo­crat­ic law­makers pub­licly say­ing they backed a rules change, and lead­er­ship count­ing votes through Wed­nes­day. Once 51 votes were on hand, Re­id de­cided to pull the trig­ger, ac­cord­ing to a Demo­crat­ic aide, who ex­plained that to wait any longer would be to risk sen­at­ors chan­ging their minds.

The Sen­ate’s sense of tra­di­tion and the weight of his­tory was a factor for some sen­at­ors. The abil­ity to file clo­ture to end a fili­buster a pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion had been in place since 1949, ac­cord­ing to a Con­gres­sion­al Re­search Ser­vice re­port, and the clo­ture rule it­self has been part of the Sen­ate rules since 1917.

“We’d much prefer the risk of up-or-down votes and ma­jor­ity rule than the risk of con­tin­ued total ob­struc­tion. That’s the bot­tom line no mat­ter who’s in power,” Sen. Chuck Schu­mer, D-N.Y., said.

Re­id’s move came des­pite the op­tics as­so­ci­ated with swap­ping roles with Re­pub­lic­ans. In 2005, minor­ity Demo­crats ral­lied to stop ma­jor­ity Re­pub­lic­ans from mak­ing sim­il­ar changes. This time, it was Demo­crats mak­ing the change.

“What is the choice?” Re­id said. “Con­tin­ue like we are or have demo­cracy?”

Re­id gambled that the re­mote­ness of Sen­ate pro­ced­ure will shield Demo­crats from pub­lic scorn. While Re­pub­lic­ans cast the move as a strong-arm tac­tic — Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., went on tele­vi­sion to call Re­id a “bully” and a “dic­tat­or” — Demo­crats wor­ried little on Thursday about polit­ic­al fal­lout.

“This? Pro­cess? A 2014 is­sue? Bring it on,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. “I would find that very sur­pris­ing if they try to run their cam­paigns on the nom­in­a­tion of judges.”

Even Re­pub­lic­ans are skep­tic­al of how the rules change could be used in 2014. “I don’t think Amer­ic­ans un­der­stand it very well,” said Sen. John Mc­Cain, R-Ar­iz. “But what it will do will af­fect our abil­ity to do busi­ness in the Sen­ate, and what we will not let it do is dis­tract us from the fail­ure of Obama­care.”

The num­ber of pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tions on which clo­ture was sought peaked in the 112th Con­gress.

Sens­ing blood in the wa­ter over Obama­care, Re­pub­lic­ans led with their strongest hand. Sen. Lamar Al­ex­an­der of Ten­ness­ee called the rules change “Obama­care II,” and Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell of Ken­tucky, in a pas­sion­ate speech dur­ing which he fre­quently turned to ad­dress his mem­bers dir­ectly, tried earn­estly to make the as­ser­tion stick.

“I’d be look­ing to change the sub­ject just as Sen­ate Demo­crats have been do­ing with their threats of go­ing nuc­le­ar and chan­ging the Sen­ate rules on nom­in­a­tions,” he said.

At one point, Mc­Con­nell trained his fire dir­ectly on Re­id, de­liv­er­ing a line that eli­cited a bois­ter­ous laugh from Sen. John Bar­rasso of Wyom­ing. “He may as well just have said, ‘If you like the rules of the Sen­ate you can keep them,’” Mc­Con­nell said, play­ing on Obama’s much-cited line over health care.

But Re­id’s de­cision to trig­ger the nuc­le­ar op­tion lightened the mood for Demo­crats. Merkley, per­haps the strongest ad­voc­ate of the change, smiled broadly and greeted vis­it­ors out­side the Sen­ate cham­ber, even high-fiv­ing one of them.

An­oth­er nearly-glee­ful law­maker was Sen. Tom Har­kin, D-Iowa, who is re­tir­ing after nearly three dec­ades in the Sen­ate. He re­membered when, as an ad­voc­ate of rules re­form him­self, only 15 or 20 Demo­crats would sup­port it. “I star­ted laugh­ing,” Har­kin said when Mc­Con­nell began talk­ing about Obama­care. “As if that had something to do with what the hell we’re do­ing here.”

Mc­Con­nell’s ob­jec­tions and taunts did not do the trick, and neither did a minutes-long floor con­ver­sa­tion between Schu­mer and Mc­Cain, who brokered the last deal to stave off a rules change in Ju­ly.

In a sol­emn tone — and call­ing at­ten­tion to the his­tor­ic­al nature of the vote by an­noun­cing the date — Pres­id­ent Pro Tem­pore Patrick Leahy of Ver­mont read the vote tally, 52-48, in fa­vor of chan­ging the rules on all nom­in­a­tions ex­cept Su­preme Court justices.

Three Demo­crats — Carl Lev­in of Michigan, who has been a vo­cal op­pon­ent of chan­ging the rules, along with red-state Sens. Joe Manchin of West Vir­gin­ia and Mark Pry­or of Arkan­sas — voted with Re­pub­lic­ans on the ques­tion.

But the de­fec­tions did not dampen what Demo­crats cheered as a suc­cess. After the vote, Re­id met with a group of lib­er­al sup­port­ers in the Mans­field Room off the Sen­ate cham­ber. Demo­crat­ic op­er­at­ive Paul Begala in­voked the memory of the late Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mike Mans­field, among oth­ers, when in­tro­du­cing Re­id.

“People who we see and revere — build­ings named after them — I can tell you when our grand­chil­dren take this place over, and they look back, they will hon­or the lead­er who brought demo­cracy back to the Sen­ate, Harry Re­id,” Begala said.

Alex Seitz-Wald contributed to this article.
What We're Following See More »
STAFF PICKS
When It Comes to Mining Asteroids, Technology Is Only the First Problem
16 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Foreign Policy takes a look at the future of mining the estimated "100,000 near-Earth objects—including asteroids and comets—in the neighborhood of our planet. Some of these NEOs, as they’re called, are small. Others are substantial and potentially packed full of water and various important minerals, such as nickel, cobalt, and iron. One day, advocates believe, those objects will be tapped by variations on the equipment used in the coal mines of Kentucky or in the diamond mines of Africa. And for immense gain: According to industry experts, the contents of a single asteroid could be worth trillions of dollars." But the technology to get us there is only the first step. Experts say "a multinational body might emerge" to manage rights to NEOs, as well as a body of law, including an international court.

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Obama Reflects on His Economic Record
17 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Not to be outdone by Jeffrey Goldberg's recent piece in The Atlantic about President Obama's foreign policy, the New York Times Magazine checks in with a longread on the president's economic legacy. In it, Obama is cognizant that the economic reality--73 straight months of growth--isn't matched by public perceptions. Some of that, he says, is due to a constant drumbeat from the right that "that denies any progress." But he also accepts some blame himself. “I mean, the truth of the matter is that if we had been able to more effectively communicate all the steps we had taken to the swing voter,” he said, “then we might have maintained a majority in the House or the Senate.”

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Reagan Families, Allies Lash Out at Will Ferrell
18 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Ronald Reagan's children and political allies took to the media and Twitter this week to chide funnyman Will Ferrell for his plans to play a dementia-addled Reagan in his second term in a new comedy entitled Reagan. In an open letter, Reagan's daughter Patti Davis tells Ferrell, who's also a producer on the movie, “Perhaps for your comedy you would like to visit some dementia facilities. I have—I didn’t find anything comedic there, and my hope would be that if you’re a decent human being, you wouldn’t either.” Michael Reagan, the president's son, tweeted, "What an Outrag....Alzheimers is not joke...It kills..You should be ashamed all of you." And former Rep. Joe Walsh called it an example of "Hollywood taking a shot at conservatives again."

Source:
PEAK CONFIDENCE
Clinton No Longer Running Primary Ads
20 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

In a sign that she’s ready to put a longer-than-ex­pec­ted primary battle be­hind her, former Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton (D) is no longer go­ing on the air in up­com­ing primary states. “Team Clin­ton hasn’t spent a single cent in … Cali­for­nia, In­di­ana, Ken­tucky, Ore­gon and West Vir­gin­ia, while” Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) “cam­paign has spent a little more than $1 mil­lion in those same states.” Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sanders’ "lone back­er in the Sen­ate, said the can­did­ate should end his pres­id­en­tial cam­paign if he’s los­ing to Hil­lary Clin­ton after the primary sea­son con­cludes in June, break­ing sharply with the can­did­ate who is vow­ing to take his in­sur­gent bid to the party con­ven­tion in Phil­adelphia.”

Source:
CITIZENS UNITED PT. 2?
Movie Based on ‘Clinton Cash’ to Debut at Cannes
22 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

The team behind the bestselling "Clinton Cash"—author Peter Schweizer and Breitbart's Stephen Bannon—is turning the book into a movie that will have its U.S. premiere just before the Democratic National Convention this summer. The film will get its global debut "next month in Cannes, France, during the Cannes Film Festival. (The movie is not a part of the festival, but will be shown at a screening arranged for distributors)." Bloomberg has a trailer up, pointing out that it's "less Ken Burns than Jerry Bruckheimer, featuring blood-drenched money, radical madrassas, and ominous footage of the Clintons."

Source:
×