The "Nuclear Option" Spin

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JONATHAN CHAIT FEBRUARY 25, 2010

The "Nuclear Option" Spin

In 2005, Senate Republicans became exasperated that Democrats began using the filibuster against judicial nominees, which had happened in the past but with less frequency than Democrats were employing it. So they threatened to impose what they called "the nuclear option" -- changing the rules mid-session by a majority vote to forbid filibustering judicial nominees. (It was a ridiculous rule change -- eliminating the filibuster acros the board might make sense, but eliminating it only for judicial nominations, which are the one kind of vote for which a filibuster makes sense, was purely arbitrary.)

Ok, fast-forward to the present. Democrats plan to use the budget reconciliation process to enact changes to the Senate health care bill to make it more acceptable to the House. Reconciliation is a process used in the Senate regularly, more often by Republicans than Democrats, and often for major policy changes like the Bush tax cuts and reforms to health care and welfare. Since reconciliation can be done with a simple majority, Republicans have taken to calling it "the nuclear option." That's a pure exercise in partisan spin, as both parties use reconciliation all the time. It does not involve changing the rules or any unusual legislative procedures.

Now the conservative site Breitbart.com has a video showing Democrats in 2005 opposing the "nuclear option." But -- a ha! -- they favor reconciliation now, and since Republicans call reconciliation "the nuclear option," they're hypocrites. Tevi Troy at National Review offers a fair sample of the conservative rhetoric:

On the political side, Democrats and their allies have been arguing that reconciliation is a perfectly legitimate legislative approach, but it was not long ago that they were arguing, in somewhat hysterical tones, that reconciliation represented the end of democracy as we know it. According to this video on the Breitbart site, then-Senator Biden said that procedures that circumvent the 60-vote hurdle are “ultimately an example of the arrogance of power,” adding that he prayed that “when the Democrats take back control we don’t make the kind of naked power grab you are doing.” Even though Democrats will conveniently manage to swallow their cognitive dissonance on this issue, reconciliation still presents significant procedural and political hurdles.

Of course, this is absurd. Democrats didn't say reconciliation was the end of democracy as we know it. They said that about changing the rules of the Senate mid-session to selectively ban filibusters. Yes, their rhetoric was overheated -- and some of us ridiculed it at the time -- but what they propose to do now is a completely different thing. Just because Republicans call both things "the nuclear option" does not make them the same thing.

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posted in: jonathan chait, biden, senate

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