Reid triggers ‘nuclear option’ to change Senate rules, end repeat filibusters

In a shocking development Thursday evening, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) triggered a rarely used procedural option informally called the “nuclear option” to change the Senate rules.

Reid and 50 members of his caucus voted to change Senate rules unilaterally to prevent Republicans from forcing votes on uncomfortable amendments after the chamber has voted to move to final passage of a bill.

Reid’s coup passed by a vote of 51-48, leaving Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) fuming.

The surprise move stunned Republicans, who did not expect Reid to bring heavy artillery to what had been a humdrum knife fight over amendments to China currency legislation. 

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The Democratic leader had become fed up with Republican demands for votes on motions to suspend the rules after the Senate had voted to limit debate earlier in the day.

McConnell had threatened such a motion to force a vote on the original version of President Obama’s jobs package, which many Democrats are against because it would limit tax deductions for families earning more than $250,000 a year. The jobs package would have been considered as an amendment.

McConnell wanted to embarrass the president by demonstrating how few Democrats are willing to support his jobs plan as first drafted. (Senate Democrats have since rewritten the package to pay for its stimulus provisions with a 5.6 surtax on annual income above $1 million.)

Reid’s move strips the minority of the power to force politically-charged procedural votes after the Senate has voted to cut off a potential filibuster and move to a final vote, which the Senate did on the China measure Tuesday morning, 62-38.

Reid said motions to suspend the rules after the Senate votes to end debate — motions that do not need unanimous consent — are tantamount to a renewed filibuster after a cloture vote.

“The Republican senators have filed nine motions to suspend the rules to consider further amendments but the same logic that allows for nine such motions could lead to the consideration of 99 such amendments,” Reid argued before springing his move.

Reid said Republicans could force an “endless vote-a-rama” after the Senate has voted to move to final passage.

He said this contradicts the rule the Senate adopted 32 years ago.

“This potential for filibuster by amendment is exactly the circumstance that the Senate sought to end by its 1979 amendments,” Reid said.

Reid appealed a ruling from the presiding officer that McConnell did not need unanimous consent to force a vote on his motion.


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Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who was acting as chairman at the time, ruled according to the advice of the Senate parliamentarian that Republicans had the right to force a vote on suspending the rules and proceeding to the president’s controversial jobs bill.

A Senate GOP source disputed Reid’s argument, however, arguing that the debate time after the Senate has voted to cut off a potential filibuster is limited to 30 hours.

The GOP source said that Republicans might be able to force votes on 30 amendments during that time but argued it would be impossible to force 99 votes, as Reid suggested.

A Democratic parliamentary expert rejected this Republican argument as based on false information. The Democratic source said motions to suspend the rules after the Senate has voted to cut off debate would waive time limits and germaneness requirements.

Republicans had considered using Reid’s maneuver, dubbed the “nuclear option,” in 2005 to change Senate rules to prohibit the filibuster of judicial nominees. Democrats decried the plan under consideration by then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) as a bomb that would decimate Senate traditions.

That crisis was resolved by a bipartisan agreement forged by a group of rank-and-file senators known as the Gang of 14.

McConnell, visibly angry and shaken, said Reid’s action Thursday evening threatened the powers of the minority that distinguish the upper chamber from the House of Representatives.

“We are fundamentally turning the Senate into the House,” he cried on the Senate floor. “The minority’s out of business.”

One Democratic source noted that former Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (Miss.) used Reid’s nuclear tactic on May 17, 2000, when he overturned a ruling from the chairman to ban non-germane sense-of-the-Senate amendments from being offered to appropriations bills.

Reid defended his action as necessary because filibusters and other dilatory actions have tied the Senate up in knots. Many junior members of his caucus, including Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), have become extremely frustrated by the length of time it takes to complete even the chamber's routine business.

Reid said he was willing to allow votes on germane amendments to the China bill but would not let Republicans force a political show vote to embarrass the president, which halted floor action throughout the day.

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“Senator McConnell wanted to offer an amendment on the president’s jobs bill,” Reid said. “That in effect tied us down because he wasn’t willing to let us move to any other amendments. I was wiling to move to other amendments.”

A Democratic aide said Reid did not strip Republicans of a crucial prerogative of the minority.

“Motions to suspend the rules after cloture are not a tactic that is central to minority rights in the Senate. A motion to suspend the rules has not succeeded since 1941, according to the Senate Historian’s office. This is simply a delay tactic the minority has used to derail even bills with broad, bipartisan support,” the aide wrote in a memo briefing reporters.

Reid said he resisted pressure from junior Democrats to “massively change” the Senate rules in the 112th Congress, when Democrats had a larger majority in hopes that Republicans could be persuaded to ease their use of obstructionist tactics.

But Reid admitted that he did not take the action lightly and could regret it in the future.

“Am I 100 percent sure that I’m right?" he asked. "No, but I feel pretty comfortable with what we’ve done. There has to be some end to the dilatory tactics.”

Senate Republicans said Reid is right to worry.

“Just wait until they get into the minority!” one GOP staffer growled.


— This story was originally published at 7:00 p.m. and has been updated.