Will Harry Reid go nuclear?

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev. gestures as he speaks with reporters on Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, July 9, 2013
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev. gestures as he speaks with reporters on Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, July 9, 2013
J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Senate Democrats have been pushing for filibuster reform since Election Day, but Harry Reid has been reluctant to use his power as Senate Majority leader to employ what is commonly referred to as the “nuclear option.”

Democrats are debating using this measure to change filibuster rules to allow a simple majority vote to end debate on executive-branch nominees and force a confirmation vote. Many Democrats are urging this drastic step in order to finally approve several nominations currently being blocked by Republicans. Departments that lack permanent leaders include the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Labor, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the National Labor Relations Board.

Use of the filibuster has increased dramatically in recent years. In a column for The Hill Mark Mellman points out that the filibuster was used only twice in the three Congresses that oversaw New Deal legislation, but the last three Congresses have averaged 92 filibusters each. And earlier this year Bloomberg Businessweek reported that the Obama administration had 181 nominees yet to be confirmed, almost twice as many as George W. Bush had during his first term.

This is why Democrats like Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley are urging Reid to employ the nuclear option. According to Politico, Senator Reid could decide as early as Thursday whether or not he will take action.

Senate rules require the approval of 67 members to approve a rule change, but the nuclear option allows the leader of the Senate to circumvent this.

Technically the Constitution grants each Congress the ability to enact its own rules through a majority vote.

“Each new session of Congress starts with a clean slate,” said New York University Professor of Politics Patrick Egan. “The Constitution allows both houses of Congress to enact their own procedural rules at the start of their session.”

In 1917 the 65th Congress established the cloture rule to end a filibuster in the Senate with a two-thirds vote (this was reduced to 60 in 1975), and every session of Congress since has followed this precedent.

But Senator Reid can propose an amendment to the cloture rule and have it enacted with only a majority vote.

If Reid does elect to go nuclear, he will clear the way for several important executive branch nominations, but will also have to face the wrath of GOP lawmakers sure to be infuriated by this step.