Senate Democrats Pass 'Nuclear Option' To Cut Confirmation Gridlock

Nov 21, 2013
Originally published on November 21, 2013 6:54 pm
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Senate Democrats went nuclear this afternoon. They turned to the so-called nuclear option - long a threat, today a reality. The change in Senate rules allows most presidential nominations to clear the Senate with a simple majority vote. As NPR's Ailsa Chang reports, the historic move comes after Republicans blocked a series of President Obama's nominees to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: A lot of Republicans were scoffing for months, insisting that Democrats would never detonate this bomb because going nuclear would come back to haunt them when there's a Republican White House and a Republican majority in the Senate, and when the Republicans want to ram through their own nominations by a simple majority vote.

Bob Corker of Tennessee had told me only a few weeks ago, he didn't take the Democrats' threat seriously. But today...

SENATOR BOB CORKER: At some point, you have to just throw up your hands and say, look, they're going to use brute, raw force to get what they wish. Let's face it. I mean, this is about the D.C. Circuit.

CHANG: Absolutely, said President Obama. You bet this is about the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Four of President Bush's six nominees to this court were confirmed. Four out of five of my nominees to this court have been obstructed. So the vote today, I think, is an indication that a majority of senators believe, as I believe, that enough is enough.

CHANG: This morning, all senators were hastily summoned to the chamber before the session officially opened, a sign that Majority Leader Harry Reid really was going to pull the trigger. He would push through a Senate rules change that would let presidential nominations, except for the Supreme Court, get through by a simple majority vote rather than by the 60 votes required to shut down a filibuster.

It's time to get the Senate working again, not for the good of the current Democratic majority or some future Republican majority, but for the good of the United States of America.

At this point, Reid said, he wouldn't be surprised if Republicans started blocking the Senate chaplain from getting through morning prayers. The last straw for Democrats was watching their Republican colleagues block the D.C. Circuit nominations simply by arguing that the court didn't have the caseload to justify filling the last three of its 11 seats.

Dick Durbin of Illinois said what was really going on was about stopping the president from tilting the balance among active judges, who are now evenly divided between Democratic and Republican appointees.

SENATOR DICK DURBIN: Not a single person on the Republican side stood up to criticize their qualifications for the job. It had nothing to do with their qualifications. It was to deny President Obama an opportunity to fill these slots on the court.

CHANG: But today, Republicans were ready with their own accusations about ulterior motives. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Reid's decision to invoke the nuclear option was simply an attempt to distract the public from an issue garnering political points for Republicans, the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act.

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: It doesn't distract people from Obamacare, it reminds them of Obamacare. It reminds them of all the broken promises. It reminds them of the power grab.

CHANG: But many Republicans argued something deeper was happening. Senate Democrats had altered the fundamental character of their chamber. John McCain of Arizona referenced something George Washington is said tp have told Thomas Jefferson once: That the Senate was set up to cool the hot-headed impulses of the more populist House just as a saucer cools hot tea.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: We put a break on particularly things that seem to be moving too quickly, and now we have just taken that away. We have now basically made us no different from the House of Representatives.

CHANG: Back in July, there was a momentary truce between Democrats and Republicans. A few nominations sailed through after a late night summit in the old Senate Chamber, where Senate giants like Daniel Webster and Henry Clay forged great compromises a century and a half ago. No one today seemed interested in truces.

Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.