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
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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.
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