In March 2005, Senator Harry Reid, the leader of the Democratic Party’s then-minority in the Senate, engaged in some legislative brinkmanship. If the Republicans went through with a dastardly plan they had devised, he warned, “the majority should not expect to receive cooperation from the minority in the conduct of Senate business … even on routine matters.” Senator Ted Kennedy hailed Reid’s stand and called on Republicans to “obey the rule of law and abandon their reckless threat to use the ‘nuclear option.’”
What was the outrageous threat that Democrats were so eager to block? Some nefarious Patriot Act provision? A bill authorizing torture, or secret surveillance? No. The Republicans, as you may recall, wanted to change the Senate rules to prevent Democrats from blocking judicial nominees by using the filibuster, a parliamentary procedure in which a minority of senators can endlessly extend debate to prevent an issue from being voted on. Eventually, a group of legislators known as the “Gang of 14”—seven Democrats and seven Republicans—struck a deal on the nominations, thus saving the filibuster and forestalling any changes to the Senate rules, and the dispute ended.
But Democrats were right to look on the nuclear option skeptically, and not because the proposed change was “reckless.” Rather, it didn’t go far enough. Every word the Republicans said about the nominees’ deserving an up-or-down vote was perfectly true—and their argument applies not just to judicial nominees, but to every other case in which the filibuster subverts the will of the majority.