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Senatorial saucer losing its cool

Invoking the nuclear option may have blown up chances of avoiding another shutdown

It was probably inevitable, this thing the U.S. Senate did last week.

One thing is for sure. It is a sign that the Senate, the legislative body designed to be the deliberative one is edging away from that ideal.

The old story goes that Thomas Jefferson, in France during the Constitutional Convention, was visiting with George Washington when he got back to the young America. He asked Washington and asked why the delegates created a Senate.

“Why did you pour that tea into your saucer?” Washington asked.

“To cool it,” Jefferson replied.

“Even so, we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it,” Washington explained.

Also called America’s most exclusive club, the U.S. Senate was designed to be stable (six-year terms with no more than a third of its members are up for election in a given year) and civil. Without the pressure that U.S. representatives face with their two-year elections, the Senate was created to be more deliberate in its actions and, many would argue, more thoughtful. Even as politics have gotten meaner and louder in recent years, senators have had a way of working out solutions to ticklish problems.

Lately, those solutions have been harder and harder to reach. When the button was pressed on the nuclear option for filibusters by the Senate Democrats last week, cooperation on some critical upcoming issues may well have been caught up in the blast.

On Thursday along a partisan vote, the Senate weakened its filibuster rules so that senators can approve executive branch nominees and any judicial nominees except Supreme Court justices with a simple majority. Before that vote, a senator could hold up a nomination if 40 other senators agreed through use of the filibuster.

Years ago when the Republicans were in charge, GOP leadership in the Senate was moving toward doing the same thing. That effort was stopped, however, when 14 senators — evenly split between Republicans and Democrats — got together and worked out a compromise. This time, a deal wasn’t reached and the threat was enacted. That means Democrats, with 53 senators and two independents who caucus with them, can now approve virtually anyone Democratic President Barack Obama nominates and Republicans are powerless to stop it.

Liberal pundits and elected officials have wanted this since Democrats regained control of the Senate, and it was only a matter of time before it happened. That Republicans became more and more inclined to invoke the filibuster only added fuel to the fire.

If what the Democrats wanted was immediate power, the move was beneficial; as far as governance for the long term, however, not so much.

The filibuster gave the minority party the ability to prevent an appointment it found objectionable. That is gone now. There is no reason for Obama to name any nominees that are more moderate.

But that can play the other way as well. During the George W. Bush administration, Democratic senators were able to use the threat of a filibuster to thwart nominees they found objectionable. Now, they may well find themselves someday in a GOP-majority Senate with a Republican president, grousing about a rule their party adopted that allows hard conservatives to be appointed to jobs and judgeships with no Democratic recourse.

And now that it has happened, it will be easier to argue for changing other long-held rules. What’s to say that even Supreme Court justice appointments will — or even should — always be subject to filibusters?

More immediate, however, are the federal budget, the borrowing limit and another round of sequestration are all fast approaching. The House and Senate are far apart on a Farm Bill.

It will be difficult for the Senate majority leadership to get cooperation out of Republicans who will be angry over this rule change. The potential for another partial federal government shutdown just got bigger.

When the filibuster rule was changed, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, observed, “Our government will work better. A president will be able to form an executive branch, our judiciary will function better, and the Senate will be able to move qualified nominees … in a more responsible manner. … The Senate now enters the 21st century.”

Perhaps. But from what we’ve seen, 21st century politics are nothing to be proud of. Never has political discourse been more divisive, abrasive and ineffective. Debates seem to be won by the politician who can shout the loudest and make the most mud stick to the opposition.

By silencing the minority voice in the Senate, the Upper Chamber has headed in a different direction. Rather than cooling the House’s hot tea, it may start turning up the heat even more.

The Albany Herald Editorial Board