Banning Filibusters: Is Nuclear Winter Coming to the Senate this Summer?

It seems the Senate could have a really hot summer. Majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has reportedly threatened to “go nuclear” this July—meaning that Senate Democrats would move by majority vote to ban filibusters of executive and judicial branch nominees. According to these reports, if Senate Republicans block three key nominations (Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Thomas Perez at Labor, and Gina McCarthy at EPA), Reid will call on the Democrats to invoke the nuclear option as a means of eliminating filibusters over nominees.

Jon Bernstein offered a thoughtful reaction to Reid’s gambit, noting that Reid’s challenge is to “find a way to ratchet up the threat of reform in order to push Republicans as far away from that line as possible.” Jon’s emphasis on Reid’s threat is important (and is worth reading in full).  Still, I think it’s helpful to dig a little deeper on the role of both majority and minority party threats that arise over the nuclear option.

Before getting to Reid’s threat, two brief detours. First, a parliamentary detour to make plain two reasons why Reid’s procedural gambit is deemed “nuclear.” First, Democrats envision using a set of parliamentary moves that would allow the Senate to cut off debate on nominations by majority vote (rather than by sixty votes). Republicans (at least when they are in the minority) call this “changing the rules by breaking the rules,” because Senate rules formally require a 2/3rds vote to break a filibuster of a measure to change Senate rules. The nuclear option would avoid the formal process of securing a 2/3rds vote to cut off debate; instead, the Senate would set a new precedent by simple majority vote to exempt nominations from the reach of Rule 22. If Democrats circumvent formal rules, Republicans would deem the move nuclear. Second, Reid’s potential gambit would be considered nuclear because of the anticipated GOP reaction: As Sen. Schumer argued in 2005 when the GOP tried to go nuclear over judges, minority party senators would “blow up every bridge in sight.” The nuclear option is so-called on account of the minority’s anticipated parliamentary reaction (which would ramp up obstruction on everything else).

A second detour notes simply that the exact procedural steps that would have to be taken to set a new precedent to exempt nominations from Rule 22 have not yet been precisely spelled out.  Over the years, several scenarios have been floated that give us a general outline of how the Senate could reform its cloture rule by majority vote. But a CRS report written in the heat of the failed GOP effort to go nuclear in 2005 points to the complications and uncertainties entailed in using a reform-by-ruling strategy to empower simple majorities to cut off debate on nominations. My sense is that using a nuclear option to restrict the reach of Rule 22 might not be as straight forward as many assume.

That gets us to the place of threats in reform-by-ruling strategies. The coverage of Reid’s intentions last week emphasized the importance of Reid’s threat to Republicans: Dare to cross the line by filibustering three particular executive branch nominees, and Democrats will go nuclear. But for Reid’s threat to be effective in convincing GOP senators to back down on these nominees, Republicans have to deem Reid’s threat credible. Republicans know that Reid refused by go nuclear last winter (and previously in January 2009), not least because a set of longer-serving Democrats opposed the strategy earlier this year. It would be reasonable for the GOP today to question whether Reid has 51 Democrats willing to ban judicial and executive branch nomination filibusters. If Republicans doubt Reid’s ability to detonate a nuclear device, then the threat won’t be much help in getting the GOP to back down. Of course, if Republicans don’t block all three nominees, observers will likely interpret the GOP’s behavior as a rational response to Reid’s threat. Eric Schickler and Greg Wawro in Filibuster suggest that the absence of reform on such occasions demonstrates that the nuclear option can “tame the minority.”  Reid’s threat would have done the trick.

As a potentially nuclear Senate summer approaches, I would keep handy an alternative interpretation.  Reid isn’t the only actor with a threat: given Republicans’ aggressive use of Rule 22, Republicans can credibly threaten to retaliate procedurally if the Democrats go nuclear.  And that might be a far more credible threat than Reid’s. We know from the report on Reid’s nuclear thinking that “senior Democratic Senators have privately expressed worry to the Majority Leader that revisiting the rules could imperil the immigration push, and have asked him to delay it until after immigration reform is done (or is killed).” That tidbit suggests that Democrats consider the GOP threat to retaliate as a near certainty. In other words, if Republicans decide not to block all three nominees and Democrats don’t go nuclear, we might reasonably conclude that the minority’s threat to retaliate was pivotal to the outcome. As Steve Smith, Tony Madonna and I argued some time ago, the nuclear option might be technically feasible but not necessarily politically feasible.

To be sure, it’s hard to arbitrate between these two competing mechanisms that might underlie Senate politics this summer.  In either scenario—the majority tames the minority or the minority scares the bejeezus out of the majority—the same outcome ensues: Nothing. Still, I think it’s important to keep these alternative interpretations at hand as Democrats call up these and other nominations this spring. The Senate is a tough nut to crack, not least when challenges to supermajority rule are in play.