Senate Democrats Go "Nuclear," Vote Down Party Lines to Change Senate Rules

Simple majority used to alter longstanding rules


nuclear's like a metaphor

The Senate struck down a rule requiring 60 votes to cut off a filibuster of an appeals court judicial nominations, voting 52-48 along party lines to disregard it, effectively overturning more than 200 years of Senate precedent, not only on the judicial filibuster, as the Washington Post notes, but by moving to change the chamber's rules without the traditional two-thirds majority in support, something previously done only to alter relatively minor rules. It's rules all the way down.

Democrats insist the rules change won't affect nominations to the Supreme Court, but Republicans say that's exactly what they'll do if a Republican president sends a Republican Senate a nomination for the Supreme Court. The Senate's fought this fight before without pulling the trigger. The Washington Post provides some context:

Reid's move is a reversal of his position in 2005, when he was minority leader and fought the GOP majority's bid to change rules on a party-line vote. A bipartisan, rump caucus led by McCain defused that effort.

At the time, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was the No. 2 GOP leader and helped push the effort to eliminate filibusters on the George W. Bush White House's judicial selections. Eight years later, McConnell, now the minority leader, has grown publicly furious over Reid's threats to use the same maneuver.

Democrats contend that this GOP minority, with a handful of senators elected as tea party heroes, has overrun McConnell's institutional inclinations and served as a procedural roadblock on most rudimentary things. According to the Congressional Research Service, from 1967 through 2012, majority leaders had to file motions to try to break a filibuster of a judicial nominee 67 times — and 31 of those, more than 46 percent — occurred in the last five years of an Obama White House and Democratic majority.

Republicans contend that their aggressive posture is merely a natural growth from a decades-long war over the federal judiciary, noting that what prompted the 2005 rules showdown were at least 10 filibusters of GOP judicial nominees. To date, only a handful of Obama's judicial selections have gone to a vote and been filibustered by the minority.

The ability of a minority to thwart the agenda and will of the party in power is a feature, not a bug, of the constitutional order, but "majority rules" is, unsurprisingly, popular with the majority.