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."