Like an actual nuclear weapon, the Senate's "nuclear option" was long thought to be most effective not as a weapon but as a deterrent. Harry Reid, leader of the Democratic majority, has frequently brandished the threat to change the Senate rules in the face of obstruction by the Republican minority, which has blocked presidential appointments at a record pace in recent years.
But Reid's threats were always just that. Each time, his saber-rattling lured Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to the negotiating table, where the two worked out a deal to resolve the stalemate of the moment. The men do not like or trust one another, but both are institutionalists and students of procedure. Reid, who spent 10 of his 26 years of Senate service in the minority, knows what it's like to have the 60-vote threshold as your only weapon against a steamrolling majority.
And yet Reid and his fellow Democrats felt they'd been pushed to the brink. Republicans had blocked three nominations to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which rules on many federal regulatory matters. Democrats charged that the trio were blocked not because of their qualifications or legal views but because of unrelated policy disagreements, or because Republicans don't want this particular court to work. On the Senate floor Thursday morning, Reid pointed out that half of the 168 filibusters of executive and judicial nominees in American history have come during the Obama Administration. "These nominees deserve at least an up-or-down vote," Reid said. "But Republican filibusters deny them a fair vote and deny the president his team."
McConnell, speaking next, accused Reid of trying to deflect attention from the ongoing failure of Obamacare implementation. "Let me be clear: The Democratic playbook of double standards, broken promises, and raw power is the same playbook that got us Obamacare," he raged. "It has to end. It may take the American people to end it."
McConnell tried to delay the vote, perhaps hoping for a last-minute deal to avert the rule change. But the motion to adjourn for a few hours failed on a nearly party-line vote. On the vote to abolish the filibuster for most executive and judicial nominations, the final tally was 52 in favor, 48 opposed, with Democratic Senators Carl Levin, Joe Manchin, and Mark Pryor joining the Republicans. The change does not eliminate the 60-vote threshold for legislation or for Supreme Court nominations.
Why did Reid pull the trigger? He was tired of making deals with McConnell, only to see their spirit violated by yet more obstruction, allies say. The two reached an informal agreement in January that was supposed to lead to fewer filibuster threats, and another deal in July that paved the way for several executive-branch nominations, including Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Thomas Perez to head the Department of Labor. But none of these bargains affected the overall trend of blockage, and Reid finally had enough.
Reid and other Democrats also concluded that Republicans, if they did retake the majority, would likely change the rules to give themselves more power if Democrats hadn't done it already. And Democrats are currently a slight favorite to retain the Senate majority in 2014. For Reid, getting the president his "team" for the next three years was worth the hypothetical risk down the road. "The Senate is a living thing," he said, "and to survive, it must change."
No alarm went off when the vote was recorded; no balloons fell from the ceiling. Reid proceeded to bring up one of the appeals-court nominees, Patricia Millett, whose nomination was advanced with 55 votes.* The other two judicial nominees were likely to follow, along with Representative Mel Watt to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency, Janet Yellen to chair the Federal Reserve, and Jeh Johnson to head Homeland Security. Liberals cheered the breakthrough: Tom Perriello of the Center for American Progress, for example, called it "a victory for the American people and an important step towards getting Washington back to work."
President Obama appeared briefly before cameras to voice his support, saying, "A majority of senators believe, as I believe, that enough is enough." Vice President Biden, also a former senator, told reporters trailing him on a visit to a sandwich-shop opening that he, too, supported the move. Meanwhile, some conservatives were also elated at what they viewed as a Democratic misstep that would open the door to eventual Republican dominance. "Want to repeal Obamacare? Want to pass sweeping national restrictions on abortion?" David Freddoso wrote in the Conservative Intelligence Briefing. "Want to drill for oil in Alaska? Harry Reid is in the process of making all that happen."
But no one should expect a sudden parting of the partisan waters in Washington, where the Republican-led House can still be counted on to stymie most Democratic policy proposals. And the question on many Senate watchers' minds now is whether McConnell will get his revenge by finding new means of obstruction.
In his speech, the minority leader warned Democrats, "You'll regret this, and you might regret it even sooner than you might think." Even without the filibuster, McConnell still has plenty of procedural ways to gum up the Senate works, Jim Manley, a former Reid aide, told me. For example, on rare occasions, Republicans have withheld the routine "unanimous consent" required to allow committees to meet each afternoon the Senate is in session.
"It's the right thing to do, don't get me wrong," Manley said of Reid's gambit. "But actions have consequences, and McConnell's got plenty of options available to him."
* Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that Millett had been confirmed. We regret the error.