One by one, some of the most august members of an august political body came forward Thursday. The tones were undeniably tragic, as though befitting a funeral.
The Senate had changed forever. In one fateful afternoon, Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada had changed an institution whose greatest strength lay in its constancy and tradition. He changed the Senate's rules.
In this case, he killed filibusters for all executive branch nominees except those for the Supreme Court. But the "old lions" like Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Carl Levin (D) of Michigan spoke as though he had done something far more profound – as though he had changed Washington itself.
At this moment, however, one might wonder if Senators McCain and Levin have it backward.
Will the "nuclear option" change Washington, or has Washington already changed?
By all accounts, Washington is not working and has not for some time. Nine percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing – an all-time low in the 39-year history of the Gallup poll.Twenty-eight percent of Americans approve of the Republican Party – also the lowest number since that poll began in 1992, according to Gallup. And President Obama's approval rating has hit its lowest point since he took office, according to a host of polls.
The government shutdown in October was Republican political strategy of the most apocalyptic sort, to be exceeded, perhaps, only by the rollout of HealthCare.gov, which seemed to all but confirm that big government is spectacularly inept.
Now comes an analysis from Politico that Congress has enacted only 49 laws – a pace that would make this Congress the least productive since record-keeping on the subject began in 1947. The famous "Do Nothing" Congress of 1947? Three hundred and eighty-eight laws enacted. By June.
What, exactly, might the nuclear option blow up?
Political scientists disagree about how big a deal the filibuster is. Some argue that even if it was banished altogether, gridlock would remain. The House, after all, isn't going to magically start passing all the new bills being sent from the Senate. It can't even pass immigration reform, which most political analysts saw as being in its best interests after the missed opportunity of the 2012 presidential election.
Yet the filibuster is a potent symbol in Washington these days. It is a symbol of the minority party's right to impede the majority, and in an era of hyperpartisanship, that is no small thing. In fact, it is virtually everything. If October's government shutdown had any point whatsoever, it was to underscore that, to many Republicans, winning was much less important than fighting, and obstruction is the ultimate weapon for congressional lost causes.
This, of course, is not how Washington used to work. Washington used to not be so partisan. The voting lineup on any bill might have crossed party lines in a variety of ways. Republicans in the minority, for example, couldn't use the filibuster in a partisan way because many Republicans were on the Democrats' side – and many Democrats' on the Republicans' side, for that matter.
But "as that era waned, the filibuster became constant because parties could agree on what to oppose," writes Ezra Klein on the Washington Post's "Wonkblog." Today's parties, he adds, are now "reasonably unified and disciplined ideological combatants."
To McCain and Levin, the memory of what came before is not yet completely dark, nor is the hope for bringing it back. But for the moment, in a Senate where 55 members were elected since 2006, many know no other Senate than the one they know now.
In that way, Reid's move this week was significant, whether or not it helps or hinders Washington gridlock. It represented an acknowledgment that the rules in Washington have changed, even if those in the Senate hadn't.