"Nuclear option" invoked by U.S. Senate

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November 21, 2013

By Phil Heidenreich

Harry Reid.jpg

Washington, D.C.: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid invoked the "nuclear option," cutting the 60-vote threshold required for executive branch nominees to reach the floor for confirmation votes to a simple majority vote. The rule change came after Senate Republicans blocked three D.C. Circuit Court judges from confirmation.[1] Tensions in the chamber have become increasingly hostile, and the decision to invoke the "nuclear option" is expected to make problems worse. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell stated, "Some of us have been around here long enough to know that the shoe is sometimes on the other foot." He continued, "You may regret this a lot sooner than you think."[2]

The rule change passed by a vote of 52-48, with three Democrats voting against the change.[1] Carl Levin joined Joe Manchin and Mark Pryor in voting against the rule change. Levin explained his vote in a statement delivered on the Senate floor saying, "The issue is not whether to change the rules. I support changing the rules to allow a President to get a vote on nominees to executive and most judicial positions. This is not about the ends, but means. Pursuing the nuclear option in this manner removes an important check on majority overreach which is central to our system of government. As Senator Vandenberg warned us, if a Senate majority decides to pursue its aims unrestrained by the rules, we will have sacrificed a professed vital principle for the sake of momentary gain."[3]

The threat of the "nuclear option" has been used throughout its nearly 225 year history by both parties but had never been put into action.[2] Republicans threatened to use it in the 109th Congress in regard to federal judge appointments, much like how the Democrats are using it currently. The threat was not well received and at that time, Senator Harry Reid stated, "I think they would be making a huge mistake to try to mess with the rules. My position is this: 203 federal judges were approved - 203. Does that require any kind of a nuclear option? I would certainly think not." The Senate Majority Leader at the time, Bill Frist, claimed, "We're going to use every tool we possibly can," calling the rule change the "constitutional option."[4] As of August 1, 2013, 221 of the president's 269 federal judge nominees have been confirmed.[5]

The rule change will not apply to votes on Supreme Court nominees or legislation.[1]

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