Our View: ‘Nuclear option’

Posted: July 17, 2013

The U.S. Senate — i.e., the world’s greatest deliberative body — has long been known for its collegial nature. While this reputation is, to a certain extent, as accurate as it is well-earned, the Senate, as political correspondent Byron York says in truth-be-told fashion, “operates on an eye-for-an-eye basis.”

The next few days may well test the veracity of Mr. York’s assessment. Democrats, irate over what they consider Republican obstructionism — i.e., the GOP’s abject refusal to allow President Obama to fill out his second-term roster of Cabinet appointments — are ready to pull the plug on the so-called “nuclear option.” What they seek to blow up, though they may deign not to acknowledge it, are years upon years of Senate tradition.

For the moment though, Senate Democrats, from Majority Leader Harry Reid on down, would have you believe it’s Republicans who are flirting with unprecedented action. In truth, the GOP is acting little differently than Democrats did in 2005 — the last time such an impasse arose, but the first time the term “nuclear option” entered the legislative lexicon.

So, unprecedented? Hardly. Even the central issues, then and now, are pretty much the same. It’s merely the numbers — Republicans, with 55 seats (or one more than Democrats have today), held the majority — that have flipped.

But the battle was over the Senate’s advise-and-consent role relative to presidential appointments, particularly to the federal judiciary. In time, Democrats felt only one option remained open to them — outright filibuster. And they employed it with gusto — against a whole slate of nominees forwarded by President George W. Bush.

Republicans, knowing Senate rules allowed filibusters, sought to counter this Democratic thrust. They formulated a plan to use an arcane parliamentary maneuver that, they said, would let them change the rules of the Senate with but a simple majority of 51 votes rather than the prescribed 67.

This was what became known as the “nuclear option.” But here’s the rub: It was never deployed.

Why? Because the Senate resorted to what now has become a time-honored stratagem — formation of a bipartisan “gang” to devise a way out of the impasse. The result: The GOP took its hand off the “nuclear” trigger while Democrats essentially agreed to use the filibuster sparingly.

Mr. York, The (Washington) Examiner’s senior political writer, called the agreement a “classic compromise,” essentially meaning that both sides had to swallow a bit of Castor oil.

Mr. Reid, obviously, was in the Senate eight years ago, so he must remember what transpired. What he’s counting on though — or so it would appear — is that everyday Americans will not. That explains the claptrap about the unprecedented nature of Republican stonewalling. Who’s kidding whom here?

Mr. Reid is certainly not kidding us, nor is he kidding members of his own party who justifiably fear blowback should Mr. Reid lay waste to the Senate rules and Republicans summarily regain control of the chamber.

Revenge, in such an instance, would be a dish best served radioactively.