'Nuclear option' for Supreme Court nominees will damage Senate
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Democrats may be on the verge of reaping the bitter harvest of the seeds sowed in November 2013.

The then-majority Democrats used a controversial parliamentary gimmick to unilaterally reinterpret existing Senate rules. By use of the so-called "nuclear option," they established the principle that a simple majority in the Senate can overrun any rule at any time.

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It is often written that the Senate Democrats led by then-Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidLobbying World Mitch McConnell is not invincible Seven big decisions facing Biden in 2020 primary MORE (D-Nev.) "changed" the filibuster rule as it applies to judicial nominations (with an exemption for Supreme Court nominees).

They did nothing of the sort.

Democrats, by fiat, altered the way the Senate interprets Rule XXII, which governs the procedure for cutting off debate and ending a filibuster. The rule continues to prescribe that when a cloture vote occurs, the question must be put, "Is it the sense of the Senate that the debate shall be brought to a close?"

It goes on to state that cloture is invoked if "the question [is] decided in the affirmative by three-fifths of the Senators duly chosen and sworn."

Reid raised a point of order, claiming that the words "three-fifths" mean "a simple majority." The presiding officer, Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahySenate passes disaster aid bill after deal with Trump GOP senators work to get Trump on board with new disaster aid package Chances for disaster aid deal slip amid immigration fight MORE (D-Vt.), on the advice of the Senate parliamentarian, rejected the point of order.

However, the majority, by a 52-48 vote (three Democrats voted "no"), was able to overturn the ruling of the chair, creating the new precedent that "three-fifths" or 60 senators means a simple "majority."

It doesn't take difficult math or much knowledge of the English language to see that this is ridiculous.

The Democrats paved the way. Now in the minority, early in the 115th Congress, Democrats will be confronted by a Supreme Court nominee chosen by President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpA better VA, with mental health services, is essential for America's veterans Pelosi, Nadler tangle on impeachment, contempt vote Trump arrives in Japan to kick off 4-day state visit MORE.

They won't like it. If nothing else, they will rightfully feel that the nomination legitimately belonged to President Obama. The Republicans stonewalled it for 10 months. Democrats will believe that the seat was stolen and that the Trump nomination is therefore illegitimate.

Consequently, a filibuster may occur. This could cause Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump orders more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions What if 2020 election is disputed? Immigration bills move forward amid political upheaval MORE (R-Ky.) to trot out the nuclear option precedent and try to extend it to cover the Supreme Court, allowing the GOP to cut off debate and use its majority to confirm the nomination.

This will enrage the Democrats. The nuclear option, which Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenGiuliani meets with former Ukrainian diplomat to get info on Dems Gillibrand seizes on abortion debate to jump-start campaign DNC boss says candidates to be involved in debate lottery MORE, while a senator, called "a lie about a rule," was given its label by former Rules Committee Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.) in 2005 because Democrats were threatening that if the Republicans used the ploy to overcome their filibuster of several George W. Bush-nominated judges, the angry Democrats would bring the Senate to a halt by obstructing everything.

The bitterness created by the twin outrages of eliminating the right to filibuster a Supreme Court nominee, coupled with the unprecedented and constitutionally suspect stonewalling of Obama's nominee, Merrick Garland, will further polarize an already deeply torn Senate.

In October, when it seemed possible that the Democratic nominee, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton slams Trump for spreading 'sexist trash' about Pelosi Gillibrand seizes on abortion debate to jump-start campaign DNC boss says candidates to be involved in debate lottery MORE, would be the next president, Republicans Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOn The Money: Conservative blocks disaster relief bill | Trade high on agenda as Trump heads to Japan | Boeing reportedly faces SEC probe over 737 Max | Study finds CEO pay rising twice as fast as worker pay Conservative blocks House passage of disaster relief bill The Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan MORE (Texas), John McCainJohn Sidney McCainClimate change is a GOP issue, too It's Joe Biden's 2020 presidential nomination to lose Meghan McCain on Pelosi-Trump feud: 'Put this crap aside' and 'work together for America' MORE (Ariz.) and Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrFive takeaways from Barr's new powers in 'spying' probe The Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan Trump Jr. slams Republican committee chairman: 'Too weak to stand up to the Democrats' MORE (N.C.) were threatening to block any Clinton nominee. The Democrats' vice presidential nominee, Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineOvernight Defense: Details on Senate's 0B defense bill | Bill rejects Trump plan to skirt budget caps | Backfills money for border wall | Defense chief says more troops could head to Mideast Dem senator plans amendment to restrict military action against Iran Overnight Defense: Iran worries dominate foreign policy talk | Pentagon reportedly to send WH plans for 10K troops in Mideast | Democrats warn Trump may push through Saudi arms sale | Lawmakers blast new Pentagon policy on sharing info MORE (D-Va.), in turn hinted that if that happened, Democrats would use the nuclear option to thwart a filibuster.

I wrote then in The Hill:

In my judgment, it would be tragic if the indefensible behavior suggested by McCain (who should know better) and Cruz provokes a new Democratic majority to rewire the Senate rules to overcome a Republican wall of partisan intransigence.

In the future, any president backed by a partisan Senate majority would no longer have to consider the views and seek the votes of at least a handful of members of the opposition party. He or she would be free to select the most ideologically pure candidate.

In 2010, just a few months before his death, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) declared that:

"If the rules are abused, and senators exhaust the patience of their colleagues, such actions can invite draconian measures. But those measures themselves can, in the long run, be as detrimental to the role of the institution and to the rights of the American people as the abuse of the rules."

The Senate now finds itself in a dilemma. The leaders of both parties — McConnell and Democratic-leader-to-be, Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerNo agreement on budget caps in sight ahead of Memorial Day recess Ex-White House photographer roasts Trump: 'This is what a cover up looked like' under Obama Pelosi: Trump 'is engaged in a cover-up' MORE (D-N.Y.) — are, I believe, both institutionalists who along with other senior senators of both parties will be reluctant to force the expansion of the regrettable nuclear option. They will fear damaging the Senate and risking a permanently partisan and polarized future for the Supreme Court.

But with the stakes so high, it will difficult to avoid the worst outcome. Damage to both the Senate and the court hangs in the balance.

Hopefully Senate leaders can find a way out.

Arenberg worked for Sens. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.), Carl LevinCarl Milton LevinListen, learn and lead: Congressional newcomers should leave the extremist tactics at home House Democrats poised to set a dangerous precedent with president’s tax returns The Hill's 12:30 Report — Sponsored by Delta Air Lines — White House to 'temporarily reinstate' Acosta's press pass after judge issues order | Graham to take over Judiciary panel | Hand recount for Florida Senate race MORE (D-Mich.) and Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine) for 34 years and is co-author of the award winning "Defending the Filibuster: The Soul of the Senate-Revised and Edited Edition." He is a visiting professor of political science and international and public affairs at Brown University.


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