Senator Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., having done an about-face on the filibuster since President Obama took office, looks over the shoulder of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, November 21, 2013.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo

‘Selective amnesia’ on the nuclear option

When Senate Democrats executed the so-called “nuclear option” in 2013, Senate Republicans were apoplectic, insisting that Dems had gone too far. Nearly two years later, the GOP has apparently changed its mind, concluding that Democrats may not have gone far enough.
The gist of the story is probably familiar to regular readers. After Senate Republican abuses reached untenable levels, pushing obstructionist tactics never before seen in American history, the then-Democratic majority had no choice but to try the nuclear option – a procedural scheme first cooked up by Republicans a decade earlier. By doing so, Dems restored majority rule on nearly all confirmation votes – if a majority of the Senate supports a nominee, he or she is confirmed, just like the Senate used to operate.
There was, however, one big catch: in addition to leaving filibuster rules intact for all legislation, the nuclear option didn’t apply to Supreme Court nominees. A Senate minority could, in theory, still block a nominee for the high court, even if he or she enjoyed majority support.
Politico reported the other day that leading GOP senators have decided to take the nuclear option another step further.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who’s spearheading the proposal with Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), said the change would bring the Senate back to the way it operated before the presidency of George W. Bush, when the Democratic minority elevated the use of filibusters as a tactic to stymie judicial nominees. Alexander is a Senate institutionalist and deal maker, while Blunt is a member of leadership; both are confidants of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
“What we would like to do is adopt by rule the way the Senate has always operated,” argued Alexander, who said he is writing the plan with Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). “The history of the Senate has been up-or-down votes, as I call them, at 51.”
Politico seems to have accepted Lamar Alexander’s rhetoric at face value, which is a shame. In reality, there’s plenty of bipartisan blame to go around, but the era of routine, partisan fights over judicial nominees began in earnest in the Clinton era, when Senate Republicans ignored institutional norms to block center-left jurists the GOP didn’t like. Democrats returned the favor during the Bush/Cheney era, and Republicans took this to a whole new level under Obama.
As for the notion that Alexander is a “Senate institutionalist,” let’s not forget that the Tennessee Republican publicly gave his word that, no matter who was president, he would never try to block a judicial nominee who enjoyed majority support. Alexander broke his word after President Obama took office, and he still hasn’t explained why he abandoned his promise so brazenly.
It’s nearly as jarring, of course, to see Mike Lee, who repeatedly tried to block Obama nominees before the nuclear option, celebrate the historic virtues of “up-or-down votes,” as if his own record no longer counts.
But even putting this aside, there are two broad angles to keep in mind here. The first is that Republicans probably wouldn’t consider such a move if they weren’t confident about controlling the Senate and the White House in 2017. Indeed, if some of their GOP brethren lack a similar confidence, this plan may very well fall apart. (It’ll be interesting to see just how many Democrats endorse the idea.)
The second is that the Republican rhetoric of 2013 looks increasingly amusing in hindsight. When Democrats restored majority rule on most nominees, GOP senators screamed bloody murder, denouncing the “constitutional crisis” created by Democrats hell bent on “destroying the Senate.”
Not quite two years later, it appears some Republicans have completely forgotten everything they said at the time – they not only want to keep the policy they denounced, some in the GOP are prepared to go even further.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) warned his colleagues about the “sheer hypocrisy” of such a move. “We said this was outrageous what they did,” McCain said. “Not only how they did it, but what they did, OK? Some of my Republican colleagues seem to have forgotten that. Some selective amnesia.”