Nevada U.S. Sen. Dean Heller called Thursday “a sad day for the United States Senate.”
But what’s really sad is that it took this long for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his Democratic caucus to change the filibuster rules so that presidential nominees to the executive branch and judicial positions were no longer subject to a much-abused filibuster. Now, those nominees will be guaranteed an up-or-down vote and either confirmed or rejected by a simple majority.
Senators will still be able to filibuster U.S. Supreme Court nominations, as well as legislation, as it should be. But the unprecedented obstruction of presidential nominees will end, and that’s also as it should be.
Reid had threatened to make this change in the past, but was mollified by Republican promises to cut down on filibustering nominees. But those promises were broken, especially after three nominations to the Court of Appeals for the Washington, D.C., Circuit were recently blocked by filibuster, which requires the Senate to muster 60 votes to end debate and move on to an actual vote on a nominee. No one can credibly say Reid acted too hastily or capriciously in leading the Senate in changing the rules.
“In this history of the republic, there have been 168 filibusters of executive and judicial nominations. Half of them have occurred during the Obama administration — during the last four-and-a-half years,” Reid said on the Senate floor on Thursday. “These nominees deserve at least an up-or-down vote. But Republican filibusters deny them a fair vote and deny the president his team.”
No longer, after Thursday’s 52-48 vote. Even Democratic senators who opposed a rules change in the past supported the move Thursday, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. “I’ve sat on the Judiciary Committee for 20 years and it has never, ever been like this,” Feinstein said, according to USA Today. “You reach a point where your frustration just overwhelms and things have to change.”
Heller voted no, warning that it could expand to apply to votes on legislation in the future, including votes on reviving the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. “This is a sad day for the United States Senate, and it’s a scary day for Nevada. While today we are discussing nominations, what assurances are there that today’s changes will not apply to future legislation?” On Twitter, he went further, opining that the change “equals nuclear waste for Nevada.”
Except that it doesn’t. Thursday’s change applies only to nominations, and changing the rules for filibustering proposed laws would require another vote. It’s doubtful that many senators who simply want to stop the illegitimate logjam on nominations would agree to change the rules for legislation. But even if they did, that’s not up for debate today, and saying or implying otherwise is simply false.
Reid’s move is not without risk, however. If a Republican were to win the White House in 2016, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., were to take over, the lack of filibuster power could be used against a Democratic minority. McConnell hinted as much when, according to USA Today, he warned Democrats that “you will no doubt come to regret this, and you may regret it sooner than you think.”
Even Reid acknowledged that in his remarks. “I have no doubt my Republican colleagues will argue the fault lies with Democrats,” he said. “I can say from experience that no one’s hands are entirely clean on this issue. But today the important distinction is not between Democrats and Republicans. It is between those who are willing to help break the gridlock in Washington and those who defend the status quo.”
If Reid does find himself in the minority some time in the future, it’s a sure bet he’ll argue for restoring the nominations filibuster. (He opposed a similar change in the rules when McConnell proposed it during George W. Bush’s presidency.) But that bit of politics doesn’t change the fact that the filibuster has been abused — by both parties — and that doing away with it for nominations is a good thing, a long-overdue thing, and, ultimately, the right thing.
Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.