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

ElectionsHarry ReidRepublican PartyBarack ObamaImmigrationMitch McConnell

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 juleswitcover@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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