The 'nuclear option'

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Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid says he's thoroughly fed up with Republicans' abuse of the filibuster rule to block President Obama's executive branch appointees. This week he may finally get a chance to do something about it.

In saying that he may invoke what is known as the "nuclear option," Mr. Reid has signaled his readiness to impose a small but significant change in the Senate rules that would reduce the number of votes needed to break a filibuster in certain circumstances — from a supermajority of 60 votes to a simple majority of 51. Mr. Reid is not proposing to eliminate the filibuster altogether, merely to prevent the minority party from derailing Senate confirmation of the president's nominees for executive agency posts.


Senate Republicans naturally hate the idea because it would instantly take away their ability to tie the administration up in knots by systematically denying the president's right to choose the members of his team. Never mind that the filibuster was never intended for that purpose. Historically, it has been viewed as a procedural tactic to ensure the Senate's minority party would not be steam-rolled by the majority, as often occurs in the more authoritarian House. It was never meant as a backdoor means to render ineffectual federal agencies that a minority party dislikes.

Yet that's one of the ugly guises the modern filibuster has taken on. Once invoked rarely by either party, the tactic has been invoked literally hundreds of times in recent years by Senate Republicans to derail routine appointments of perfectly well-qualified executive-branch nominees who otherwise would have sailed through the confirmation process.


Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his colleagues have hijacked the filibuster rule to turn the Senate's constitutional power of advice and consent into a blunt instrument of political obstructionism and delay. Not only have they filibustered the president's nominations for top national security posts such as the defense secretary and CIA director, which normally are immune from such partisan interference, they've gone after lower level cabinet posts as well.

Last year, Senate Republicans blocked former Maryland labor secretary Thomas Perez's appointment to head the U.S. Department of Labor, as well as the president's nominees to head the Environmental Protection Agency, the Consumer Finance Protection Board, the Export-Import Bank and members of the National Labor Relations Board. Mr. Obama to was forced to bring Mr. Perez on as a recess appointment when Congress was out of session, and Senate Republicans are now challenging his authority to lead his department in the courts.

Majority Leader Reid's threat to end such shenanigans by changing the filibuster rule ought to focus Republicans' minds on how much they have to lose if he were to make good on his word. The irony is that Republicans have it in their power to avoid this entire mess. They could simply renew their pledge to abide by the Senate's long-standing tradition of extending all executive-branch appointees the courtesy of an up or down vote — then stick to it and stop gumming up the works.

Democrats are, of course, not wholly innocent in their use of the filibuster. They attempted to block some of former President George W. Bush's judicial appointees after his re-election in 2004, but faced with Republican threats to use the "nuclear option," a bi-partisan group of 14 senators came to an accommodation that allowed the nominees to go through and the rules to stay the same.

But since then, the level of filibuster abuse has increased markedly, and it may not be possible for the parties to avoid this kind of confrontation — it may not, for that matter, be desirable for them to avoid it. Still, if Republicans are as concerned with the institution of the Senate as they claim to be, they will stand down from their hijacking of its traditions and afford the president the right to appoint whom he sees fit. Much of the public already thinks the "nuclear option" for filibuster reform is a lot less radical than the GOP's attempts to block Mr. Obama from nominating qualified people to lead federal agencies, and they're likely to shed few tears if Republicans' intransigence leads to them getting their wings clipped.