I believe it was Bill Frist, that ol’ Tennessee sawbones notorious for basically Skyping a misdiagnosis of poor Terry Schiavo, who first threatened to “go nuclear” over stalled George W. Bush appointees. That was back in 2005, when he was Senate Majority Leader, and he was so pissed that he proposed changing the Senate rules to require a simple majority vote on Presidential appointments, rather than the 60-vote threshold needed to bust a filibuster.
The “nuclear option” is actually more like a tactical strike. You, Mr. Senator, can still filibuster any bill you want, or any Supreme Court nominee, and folks, get ready for some doozies. But if the President’s party has a Senate majority, he’s going to get his federal-judge nominees and executive-office appointments, as he needs to for the government to function. The key advantage Senate Pubs held over President Obama until yesterday was, they don’t care if the government can’t function. They actually hate their President more than they love their country. To them, any Democrat in the White House is by definition illegitimate, but this particular one just drives them crazy.
If they don’t like a Federal agency, Senate Pubs simply refuse to staff it. They stand in the way of perfectly qualified judges, approved out of committee, because they don’t like the President who appointed them. They let other superb executive candidates twist in the wind, putting their lives on hold and upending their families, hoping they’ll finally just remove their names in disgust (this slimy, cowardly tactic has actually worked several times) and vital agencies will remain leaderless. Earlier this month, they made dubious history by filibustering the first sitting member of Congress since the 1840s: Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC), nominated to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency. The Senate minority has committed sabotage against its nation, time and time again. The former World’s Greatest Deliberative Body has become a sumphole where good Presidential appointments go to die. But this time the Pubs have pushed too far – and finally, finally, we’ve called in a plumber to snake the place clean.
The last straw was the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, a body where federal regulations often come up for review, second in influence only to the Supremes. It has three vacancies, and the Pubs have filibustered every one of the President’s nominees. The problem isn’t qualifications, as they freely admit. It’s that Obama appointees can be expected to be sterner about regulations than Pubs would like. But that’s not what they say in public. The first complaint was that the President was “packing the court,” as if any of his predecessors had failed to choose their own like-minded nominees. Their current howler is even better: the court has a light caseload and can do without three expensive judgeships. (A dozen state Attorneys General joined in decrying the Pub plan to shrink the “vital, understaffed” court, yet the Wall Street Journal editorial page signed on with the same “taxpayer-saving” bilge only yesterday.) This was simply ridiculous; at last, the Pubs had overstepped. The Senate went nuclear – and moments after changing the rules, Democrats voted to advance the first judge, Patricia Millett. The other two will follow shortly, and the Obama administration will finally be able to deploy the executive-branch public servants our country so desperately needs.
“If the Democrats proceed to use the nuclear option in this way, it will be Obamacare II,” snarled Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) before Thursday’s vote. “It will be the raw exercise of political power to say, ‘We can do whatever we want to do.’ ” Really? The right-wing megaphone bleated quite differently during the Frist days. Read this blast from the past, courtesy of Media Matters.
Yes, Democrats employed this same filibuster when they were the Senate minority. But before you declare a false equivalency – “they all do it” – have a peek at this chart of recent Senate cloture votes. You’ll see which side has abused this rule so egregiously that it had to change, and change now. And here’s a dirty little secret: few doubt that, should Pubs take control of the Senate in 2015 with fewer than 60 votes, they would go nuclear. Go back and look at all that cheerleading in 2005, and remember that nobody presses an advantage or dives through a loophole like a Pub, especially an angry one. “There are so many ways you can delay, obstruct, and poison the well to keep legislation you’re opposed to from moving forward,” offered former Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott, the man who actually coined the term “nuclear option.”
“Now, Republicans say, ‘What goes around comes around. Wait ’til we’re in charge,’” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). “I can’t wait until they’re in charge. I mean, the moment is now. We’re here for now.” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) double-dared the Dems: “All I can say is this — be careful what you wish for. There are a lot more Scalias and [Clarence] Thomases that we’d love to put on the bench.” Do you really think that wouldn’t happen anyway? Elections have consequences, even if the Pubs have been acting as if Mitt Romney won last year, and if they can grasp ahold of the Senate and put another plutocrat in the White House, progressives may indeed rue this day. But what would be worse is another one, maybe three years of inaction while the Pubs, who have no interest in governing, run out the clock. Going nuclear is indeed dangerous. But continuing to allow the nation to limp when it should be sprinting is far, far worse.