Harry Reid's Nuclear Option is His Last Shot At Credibility


Harry Reid signaled again today that he hasn't budged from his position on the nuclear option, as all 100 senators prepare for a rare meeting in the Old Senate Chamber to discuss the issue later today. He repeated his ultimatum: give seven of Obama's current nominees an up or down vote, and stop all filibusters of executive branch nominations from now on, or he will change the rules to make it harder for them to stall. Reid has threatened to do this before, only to be pacified by a handshake agreement with Minority Leader McConnell. This time, however, Reid probably isn't bluffing.  He has little to lose and much to gain by going forward.

Ever since Reid and McConnell took their current positions in 2007, and especially since President Obama took office, the Senate's gridlock has exploded. The chart below, which measures the number of all cloture motions filed in each session of Congress, provides a way to quantify the problem. Cloture is the process by which the Senate shuts off debate (or stalling) and proceeds to a vote. It is usually necessary to use it when a minority wants to continue debate, and is a useful measurement of gridlock.

Photo Credit: Think Progress

The reason why McConnell and Senate Republicans have been so shameless in shutting down the nation's once-prestigious upper chamber is largely because Harry Reid has been their enabler. Having spent three decades of his life in the Senate, Reid, like many veterans of that body, is rather attached to its arcane rules and traditions.

As a result, Reid long tried to do things the old-fashioned way: compromise with the minority. But the Senate's once-legendary reputation for bipartisanship depended on both sides acting in good faith, and McConnell has not acted in good faith. Harry Reid repeatedly tried to reach gentlemen's agreements with McConnell to expedite Senate business without major rule changes. We've seen a couple versions of these toothless agreements over the years, and they haven't worked because McConnell keeps breaking them.

Having backed down on previous threats to go nuclear, Reid's credibility is now on the line and he has the necessary votes to get it done.  He has said he plans to call for cloture on the seven nominees tomorrow, and proceed with the rule change if Republicans stand in the way. Republican howls notwithstanding, it is not such a drastic change; it would only affect non-judicial nominations, leaving legislation and judicial appointments under existing rules. Reid has no more excuses this time. If Republicans do not finally end their filibustering of executive nominees, Reid has to do it for them. If he doesn't, he risks crying wolf one too many times, and will lose what little credibility as a leader he still has.

Additional photo credit: Pierre J.