Senate 'nuclear option': Within Democratic ranks, youth trumped experience

Newer members of the Senate's Democratic caucus are the ones who pushed, hard, on majority leader Harry Reid to change the rules to curb minority rights. When Democrats become minority party, will they rue choosing 'nuclear option'?

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D) of Oregon defends the Senate vote to weaken filibusters and make it harder for Republicans to block confirmation of the president's nominees for judges and other top posts, on Capitol Hill on Thursday. The move was unanimously opposed by Republicans and three fellow Democrats.

You could easily call Carl Levin one of the wise “old lions” of the US Senate. Elected 35 years ago, the powerful Democrat from Detroit has been around long enough to know – in his view, anyway – that Thursday’s detonation of the “nuclear option” in that storied chamber was a very bad idea.

Senator Levin was one of three Democrats to buck his party’s unilateral decision to do away with the filibuster that allows the minority party to block a vote on presidential nominees, such as agency heads and lower-court judges. It takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, and that rule will still apply to US Supreme Court nominees and to legislation.

“When the precedent is set that a majority can change the rules at will on judges, that precedent will be used to change the rules on considered legislation, and down the road, the hard-won protections and benefits for our people’s health and welfare will be less secure,” Levin said on the Senate floor Thursday.

Yet Levin was not able to tame several of the younger “cubs” in his party, who for some time have been pushing to upend the filibuster. Finally, they persuaded Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada – who had long resisted this move for reasons similar to Levin’s – to go nuclear, that is, to overturn the decades-old rule and require instead a simple majority vote for nominee approval.

The Democrats’ decision – unanimously opposed by Republicans – is just as much a reflection of generational change as it is of increasing partisanship in the Senate, often referred to as “the world’s greatest deliberative body.”

“I don’t think you’ll ever see a much clearer example of a generation gap than on the wisdom of changing the filibuster rules,” says Ross Baker, a congressional expert at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. Twenty Democrats have been elected to the Senate since 2008. They have never known anything but the Democratic majority – never walked in the shoes of the minority, which inevitably, Democrats will again wear some day.

Senior senators such as Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee – both of whom have long records of bipartisanship – warned that Democrats will pay dearly for the unilateral maneuver to alter the filibuster. Democrats say the action was triggered by the GOP’s recent blocking of three of President Obama’s judicial nominees to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Some speculate that if Republicans take control of the Senate in 2014 – a real possibility – they will make rules changes of their own, including ones that would allow them to repeal Obamacare with a simple majority, though it’s doubtful they could overcome a presidential veto.

The Senate was purposely designed by the Founding Fathers to cool the hot-headed House, whose representatives are elected every two years and are meant to closely reflect the mood of the public – which can be mercurial. By contrast, senators are elected every six years and still live by creaky rules to slow things down, so that parties can reason their way to problemsolving. But with the rule change, along with creeping partisan toxicity among senators, this chamber is coming more and more to resemble the House. As Senator McCain put it, the nuclear option has caused “great damage to the institution itself.”

But the damage has already been done, say many Democrats, especially the younger set who came in with President Obama. That would include Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico and Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, who had been working to change the filibuster rule since 2011.

The Senate was meant to be a cooling saucer, but “it’s not supposed to be a deep freeze,” Senator Merkley told Gwen Ifill on PBS last summer, after a deal had been reached to avoid a filibuster on some of the president’s nominees.

“From President Eisenhower to President Ford, there wasn't a single filibuster of an executive nomination,” he said. But Thursday, Democrats said that half of the filibusters launched against presidential nominees since the start of the republic have been against Mr. Obama’s choices.

Senate Historian Don Ritchie says it’s not unusual for freshmen senators to want to shake things up. “There have been young reformers for decades,” he says. They’re sent to Washington to change things. They’ve campaigned, made promises, and may have come in with a president who has an ambitious agenda. “They’re all set to go, and everything slows down and nothing happens,” says Mr. Ritchie, adding that even this Senate has passed bipartisan immigration, farm, and transportation bills.

Those who have been in the Senate long enough eventually discover that the “powdered wiggery” of cumbersome rules works to the advantage of both parties, and that cross-party cooperation is the only way to get most business done there, he says. He notes that former Senate majority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas, who started out his congressional career in the House, came to the Senate so intensely partisan that then-Sen. Barry Goldwater (R) of Arizona once said he could take “the bark off a tree.” But as Senate leader, Mr. Dole could often be found in the Democrats’ cloakroom, legal pad in hand, working with Democrats on amendments.

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