EDITORIAL: Filibuster flip

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid loved the filibuster before he hated it. Which means he’s sure to love it again, when the practice suits him.

Make no mistake, Sen. Reid, D-Nev., did the right thing Thursday when he established new precedent to limit minority power. He orchestrated the 52-48 vote to prohibit the use of filibusters on presidential nominees because, for the past decade-plus, the procedure has been used not as a last resort, but a routine tool of partisan obstruction.

But Sen. Reid wrote the playbook on partisan obstruction when he served in minority leadership. Although the so-called “nuclear option” was long overdue — and long advocated by this newspaper — Thursday’s vote also smacks of hypocrisy and expediency, and it paves the way for even greater curbs on filibusters.

Back in 2005, Sen. Reid and President Barack Obama, then a U.S. senator from Illinois, gave passionate, principled speeches in defense of the filibuster. The Republican majority was threatening to do exactly what Sen. Reid just did, to advance a slate of President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees. And, predictably, the national media were on board with the idea that nuking the filibuster might end the republic. The GOP relented and, in a bipartisan deal brokered by moderate senators, the unlimited filibuster was preserved and some Bush nominees were allowed to proceed to votes.

The filibuster is supposed to be an instrument to force extended public debate on matters of great consequence. It has devolved into an undramatic exercise in vote counting. Without 60 votes among 100 senators, nothing moves forward, not even qualified presidential nominees. Extended debate? Senators are far too busy these days to put forward arguments. To merely threaten to filibuster is as good as a filibuster.

Every presidential nominee should receive a timely up-or-down vote, regardless of the president’s party and which party controls the Senate. And only under unusual circumstances should any executive or judicial nominee face outright rejection.

Sen. Reid and Democrats justified this step because they claim Senate Republicans’ use of the filibuster is unprecedented. That’s true to a degree. But when it comes to judicial obstruction — which sparked Sen. Reid’s move — President Obama had a higher percentage of first-term Circuit Court nominees approved than George W. Bush, and the president had a higher percentage of District Court nominees approved than George H.W. Bush, according to the Congressional Research Service. Filibuster abuse is wrong, but it’s not a new phenomenon.

We’re assured that filibusters will continue to be allowed on U.S. Supreme Court nominees and legislation. Please. The next time a Senate minority tries to block a president’s Supreme Court pick, that blockade will get the nuclear treatment. And if Democrats somehow manage to keep a tight majority in the Senate and capture the House in next year’s elections, the legislative filibuster goes bye-bye for Mr. Obama’s final two years in office.

Senate Democrats did the right thing Thursday, but they can’t have it both ways anymore. Eventually, they’ll be in the Senate minority, longing to block conservative appointments. And if they complain about the rules they put in place, they’ll have even less credibility than they do today.

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