Constitution Daily

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Senate dodges nuclear filibuster option for now

July 16, 2013 by NCC Staff


Democratic Senate majority leader Harry Reid and Republican leaders reached a truce on Tuesday that will preserve the filibuster and get at least five Obama administration nominees votes on the Senate floor.

Joint_Session_of_Congress-450x300Under the tentative proposal, President Barack Obama would pull back two nominees to the National Labor Relations Board — Sharon Block and Richard Griffin — and replace them with two others who will receive Senate votes.

Obama was under fire from Republicans who objected to the appointments of Block, Griffin and a third nominee during a Senate recess period. (The legality of such recess appointments is on the case list for the Supreme Court’s next term.)

Senate Republicans agreed to allow the other votes to proceed, on simple majority lines, including votes on potential Obama cabinet members.

But both sides made it clear that they reserved the right to have another nuclear option showdown, if and when more controversial nominees and votes come along.

“They’re not sacrificing their right to filibuster and we damn sure aren’t filibustering our right to change the rules if necessary, which I’m confident it won’t be but I want it made very clear,” Reid said.

“We are pleased that the majority decided not to — to exercise the nuclear option,” Minority leader Mitch McConnell said. “We think that's in the best interests of the institution.”

How long the truce holds will be a test of the bipartisan spirit that broke out in the Senate on Monday night, when most of its members met behind closed doors for a four-hour session to find a way to preserve the filibuster.

Eliminating filibusters would be a major historic change to the way the Senate operates and one of the biggest changes to it since the 17th Amendment, which allowed direct election of senators in 1913.

The filibuster in its original form dates back to the 1830s and it allows a senator (or a group of senators) to delay a vote on procedures, legislation, judicial nominees and executive branch nominees by taking the Senate floor and physically holding it as long as possible.

“Talking filibusters” are rare nowadays because the Senate changed its rules to allow for “silent filibusters.” This happens when a senator tells his or her floor leader that they wish to filibuster a vote. At that point, at least 60 senators have to agree to override the filibuster in what is called a cloture vote.

The frequent use of silent filibusters caused a big stir in January when Senate majority leader Reid threatened to use a little-known move called the “nuclear option” or “constitutional option” to re-write the Senate rule book, and kill the filibuster entirely.

But both parties in the Senate understand that the tables could be turned after any election year, and a majority party that bans the filibuster could rue the day that comes when it becomes the minority party.

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