POLITICS

Twilight Zone: When Dems were against the 'nuclear option' --- and Republicans were for it

By |
Politics,Beltway Confidential,Congress,Harry Reid,Mitch McConnell,Ashe Schow,Analysis,Filibuster,Nuclear Option

Back in 2005. Michael Jackson was alive, New Orleans was reeling from Hurricane Katrina, and all across America people were complaining about ridiculously high gas prices ($3.07 at the time).

But as Americans were focused on other things, the U.S. Senate was having a debate eerily similar to one going on today — over the use of the filibuster to block presidential nominees.

Now, in 2013, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., continuously threatens to use the "nuclear option" to change Senate rules that allow the chamber's majority to force up-or-down votes on presidential nominees and effectively kill the filibuster.

Reid was singing a different tune in 2005, saying the nuclear option was "un-American," "illegal" and a "complete abuse of power." Consider this vintage Reid floor speech in which he declared that using the nuclear option to end the filibuster would "violate over 200 years of Senate tradition and impair the ability of Democrats and Republicans to work together on issues of real concern to the American people."

Reid is not the only Democrat singing a different tune on the issue. Then-Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said in 2005, "... everyone in this chamber knows that, if the majority chooses to end the filibuster, if they choose to change the rules and put an end to democratic debate, then the fighting, the bitterness, and the gridlock will only get worse."

In 2013, a Democratic aide said that Obama would support Reid if he decided to do something about the president's nominations, according to the Washington Post.

Then-Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., also spoke against ending minority rights to filibuster, saying "This nuclear option is ultimately an example of the arrogance of power. It is a fundamental power grab by the majority party." Biden is now noticeably silent on Reid's nuclear option threats.

Other notable Democrats opposing the nuclear option in 2005 but now leaving the option open:

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., then: "I know if the shoe were on the other foot, I would not advocate breaking Senate rules and precedent."

Feinstein now: "If we can't [find a bipartisan solution to filibuster reform], then the so-called nuclear option comes into play. I'm hopeful that that is not the case, because what comes around goes around."

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., then: "Break the rules, change the whole balance of power and checks and balances in this great Senate and great country."

Schumer now: "It would be better to fix it in a bipartisan way, and that's what we're working toward, but if not, we still gotta fix it."

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., then: "To change the rules in the middle of the game is bordering on an abuse of power."

Nelson now: Nelson told the Tampa Bay Times that he would support employing the nuclear option but hoped it wouldn't come to that.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., then: "... they are prepared to push through this unconstitutional and unreasonable change in the Senate rules."

Durbin now: Durbin proposed using the nuclear option to get Obamacare passed in 2010 after Scott Brown had been elected to the Senate. A request for a comment regarding the senator's views on using the nuclear option on executive nominees has gone unanswered.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, then: "But the long-term destructive consequences triggering the nuclear option would be profound for our system of Government. For more than two centuries, Senate rules and traditions have respected the rights of the minority. That would be destroyed."

Harkin now: Introduced a bill that would remove the minority's power to filibuster. Harkin will not run for re-election in 2014.

Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Mark Pryor, D-Ark., have stuck to their principles over the nuclear option, while Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who were once opposed to the nuclear option, are now on the fence.

Democrats are not the only ones flip-flopping on filibuster use. Then-Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was in favor of the nuclear option in 2005, saying, "If we can only change an abominable rule by majority vote, that is in the interests of the Senate and in the interests of the nation that the majority must work its will. And it will work its will."

The nuclear option proposed by Republicans in 2005 was slightly different than what Reid wants to do today. Republicans wanted to preserve the filibuster for legislation and executive nominations, but end it for judiciary nominations.

Democrats have introduced separate bills ending the filibuster for legislation and executive nominations, which would preserve it for judicial nominations. However, Democrats in 2005 had only blocked 10 of President George W. Bush's nominees, while Republicans today have blocked an unprecedented amount.

McConnell now says he is "glad" that Republicans didn't use the nuclear option back in 2005, and has given floor speeches nearly every day railing against what Reid and Democrats are proposing. "They're willing to irreparably damage the Senate to ensure that they get their way," he said last week.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, was also fighting in 2005 for the nuclear option, writing in Human Events that "the judicial confirmation process needs to be fixed by returning to the tradition of up-or-down votes for judicial nominations reaching the Senate floor. This deal does not directly accomplish this goal, though it remains to be seen whether it might still do so in practice. I agree with [then-Senate Majority Leader Bill] Frist [R-Tenn.] that, one way or another, whether by the self-restraint that once guided us or by the constitutional option, that tradition must return."

Hatch now says that "[c]hanging those rules, especially in the way the majority is talking about, means changing the Senate's role in our system of government. A few partisan victories simply cannot be enough to justify that."

View article comments Leave a comment