Summer Sale Extended! Get unlimited digital access for 13 weeks for $13.
News Opinion Op-Eds

Senator Strangelove: Why Harry Reid should stop worrying and learn to love the nuclear option

We're decades past the Cold War years when the two leading nuclear powers of the day, the United States and the Soviet Union, talked freely about their MAD strategies, which stood for Mutual Assured Destruction in any nuclear-weapons exchange.

Now, in a much more rational time, the Senate traffic cops — Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Mitch McConnell — are again discussing use of "the nuclear option," in the much less lethal legislative warfare being waged on Capitol Hill.

Just as the mere threat of a nuclear exchange was enough to avoid Armageddon during the Cold War, so has the minority threat of Senate filibuster against confirmations of presidential nominees for executive and judicial branch appointments deterred them now. Existing Senate rules effectively require a 60-vote supermajority for confirmation, and the Republican minority of 46 votes is more than enough to bar the door as it pleases, and it has done so.

As the partisan lines have stiffened and tempers flared between Messrs. Reid and McConnell, the Democratic leader last week threatened to change the supermajority rule by majority vote. All required would be a ruling by the presiding officer, presumably Vice President Joe Biden as president of the Senate, to that effect.

An earlier threat to use "the nuclear option" by then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Republican, was soundly opposed by Senate Democrats when they were in the minority. They labeled the prospective move an abuse of majority power, but now the shoe is on the other foot. Mr. Reid says GOP obstructionism, rampant in the House, is also affecting the Senate in what has become routine blocking of Oval Office appointments.

Just as Senate Democrats warned during the first "nuclear option" that a time would come when the Republicans would be in the minority, now GOP senators are singing the same tune in reverse. But the dysfunction of Congress as a whole has reached such a point that protection of minority rights seems to be throttling the virtues of majority rule in a democratic system.

If so, the minority obstructionism seen in Republican and especially conservative tea-party opposition to President Barack Obama seems to have brought Mr. Reid to a breaking point. It comes just as a rare outbreak of bipartisanship was achieved in Senate passage of a compromise immigration reform bill with 14 Republicans aboard.

But House Speaker John Boehner has already thrown cold water on that demonstration of Senate cooperation by refusing to bring the bill to the House floor, instead moving ahead on a piecemeal approach to immigration reform of uncertain future. Meanwhile, on the executive appointments before the Senate, the majority there resists using the power to act bestowed on its members by the voters.

The argument has long been made that the Senate must remain the bastion of free and unfettered speech, where the rights of the minority are protected in the best "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" tradition. But when partisan obstruction becomes the standard posture of the Senate minority, as it already is of the House majority, something needs to be done to break the logjam.

The very expression "nuclear option" illustrates the penchant in Washington among leaders of both parties to declare the sky is falling when any threat to business as usual is proposed. We saw that same phenomenon in Mr. Obama's warning that the sequester deal on deficit reduction would cause certain chaos. But the government has managed to function despite cutbacks in certain programs and services.

Conservative squawks that national security would be imperiled by cuts to Pentagon spending have been quieted somewhat by stories of military waste. For example, The Washington Post has reported the prospective abandonment, giveaway or even demolition of a new $34 million American state-of-the art headquarters facility in Afghanistan that has never been used.

Neither the world nor the Senate will come to an end if Mr. Reid decides to make good on his threat to enable a majority of senators to work their will on confirmation of presidential appointments. For all of Mr. Obama's 2008 promises to "change the way Washington works," it may fall to the Senate itself to cut the so-called nuclear option down to size and get on with its business.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
  • Senate filibuster rule contradicted the Framers' intent [Letter]

    Senate filibuster rule contradicted the Framers' intent [Letter]

    It is most disturbing that former Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and so many current members of the U.S. Senate and House do not understand that minority rule in either house of Congress was one of the fears expressed by the Framers of the Constitution ("The nuclear option: then and now,"...

  • Democrats go 'nuclear' [Letter]

    Democrats go 'nuclear' [Letter]

    In response to Jules Witcover's column ("Nuclear option preserves majority rule for Senate Democrats," Nov. 26), I guess if I threaten to kill someone, but don't do it, I am still liable for murder charge. This is equivalent to the argument that the Democrats doing the "option" is turnaround as...

  • End of Senate filibuster marks end of equality [Letter]

    In the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence it specifically states that "all men are created equal." My fellow Democrats in the U.S. Senate did the unthinkable when they changed the filibuster (cloture) rules. They erected the ultimate fence in favor of Democrats and against the...

  • Senate filibuster threat is nothing new [Letter]

    Senate filibuster threat is nothing new [Letter]

    Your editorial regarding Senate Republicans has the usual complaints that liberals make about court appointments not being confirmed because of Republican obstruction ("Senate obstructionists run wild," Nov. 18).

  • A double standard on federal judicial appointments [Letter]

    A double standard on federal judicial appointments [Letter]

    Given the money that you want readers to pay for digital access, perhaps you can hire an intern to do just a bit of research before you print typically slanted editorials like the recent one on President Obama's appointments to the federal bench ("Senate obstructionists run wild," Nov. 19).

  • Senate obstructionists run wild [Editorial]

    Senate obstructionists run wild [Editorial]

    Our view: With blocked Obama nominations stacking up like cord wood this month, it's time to reform the Senate's dysfunctional rules