The rancor between Democrats and Republicans moved uncomfortably close to a fundamental change in the way the U.S. Senate functions on Tuesday.
At issue were a group of appointments by President Barack Obama that had been stalled in the Senate, which is required to “advise and consent” on certain executive branch appointments.
The action was being held up by the threat of a filibuster by Republicans. For a filibuster to be stopped, three-fifths of the Senate — 60 senators — must vote to end it. With 46 Republicans in the Senate, the 52 Democrats and the two independents who caucus with Democrats didn’t have the votes to break a GOP filibuster.
That had Senate Democrats seriously considering implementation of the so-called “nuclear option.” There was a very real threat Tuesday that, unless the procedural logjam were broken voluntarily, the Democratic majority would make good on its threat.
Fortunately, the issue was dodged when the two parties managed to reach a compromise.
What it would have meant is that Democratic senators would have imposed a new Senate rule that would have taken the filibuster out of play, enabling executive branch nominations to be approved by a simple majority of 51 senators.
Normally this type of rule change takes an even greater supermajority than what is required to break a filibuster — two-thirds of the Senate, or 67 senators. The plan, however, was for the Democratic chair to rule that a simple majority of 51 senators could alter the procedure, then take a vote.
That would have been a mistake.
This isn’t the first time that using the nuclear option to change the Senate playing field has been brought up. In fact, Republicans, when they were the majority in the Senate, considered doing the same thing.
There are those who think the Senate supermajority requirements for certain actions are archaic and that there should not be a situation where a minority of senators can hold up the will of the majority. The filibuster, however, is an important part of the institution that is the Senate, the legislative body that is supposed to be more deliberative, the one that gives the smallest state in the Union the same voice as the most populous one. And the requirement that an overwhelming majority of senators sign off on changes to the way the chamber conducts its business goes a long way toward ensuring that any such changes are not driven by one party looking to cement its political advantage.
The Senate rules magnify the importance of each senator, forcing the majority to take into account the opinions of the minority. They force cooperation in a Legislature that is increasingly divisive.
If a simple majority of senators determines that executive appointments shouldn’t be subject to filibusters, then simple majorities of future Senates can make the same argument for other actions when it fits the majority party’s agenda.
Having that type of power works fine if you’re guaranteed that your party will always be on top, but — as the GOP has learned — that is a poor assumption. We predict there will be a time in the future when Democrats will be glad that they didn’t press the “red button” Tuesday.