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Why The GOP's Use Of The "Nuclear Option" Matters

  • Calvin Wolf
  • Apr 6, 2017 4:01PM

While many citizens groan when they hear about filibusters in the U.S. Senate, and complain that these lengthy monologues by grandstanding legislators only muck up the works, Washington is actually worse off without them. Today, in order to help get President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee confirmed, Senate Republicans changed the legislative body’s rules about ending filibusters. Traditionally, a filibuster could only be ended prematurely by invoking cloture with sixty votes. Now, under the efforts of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), a mere simple majority of fifty-one votes is needed.

Citizens may be wondering what all the fuss is about: Filibusters are still allowed, but it just takes nine fewer votes to abruptly end them. Without cloture, the filibuster continues until the pontificating Senator can no longer hold the floor. The longest filibuster ever was 24 hours and 18 minutes, in an attempt by segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond to delay voting on the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Unlike in the movies, filibusters rarely, if ever, change the vote on a bill or substantially affect public opinion – the goal is to delay voting on a bill in an attempt to get provisions changed.

If a bill faces the threat of a filibuster, it will likely be edited to make it more palatable to those threatening said filibuster. Importantly, the threat of filibustering is one of the few tools available to the minority party in the U.S. Senate. If everything in the Senate was accomplished by a mere simple majority, the majority party could simply do whatever it wanted.

Since 2013, both parties have begun chipping away at the filibuster protection for majority parties. Almost four years ago, the Democrats were in control of the Senate and decided to end the use of the filibuster when it came to presidential appointees. The rationale was that Republicans were refusing to play fair and intentionally stonewalling the necessary confirmation votes of President Barack Obama’s nominees for various positions.

In a bit of irony rarely so perfectly rendered, the GOP has come out swinging against the planned liberal filibuster of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch by using almost exactly the same language the Dems used in 2013.