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.”
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.