When it comes to parliamentary debate, the Senate has its own option to go “nuclear.” As filibuster reform has been ground to a near halt over the last five months, Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has threatened a change to the rules to allow debate to proceed more quickly in the chamber. This would specifically do away with the 60-vote threshold that is currently needed to confirm all judicial and executive branch nominations.
While this change avoids focus on traditional legislation filibusters, it still presents an opportunity to break down the severe tensions that have thwarted the president's recent nominations and arguably his ability to function as a leader of the nation.
Senator Reid plans on using three upcoming nominees to test whether he will exercise this “nuclear” option: Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Thomas Perez as secretary of labor, and Gina McCarthy to head the Environmental Protection Agency. If Republican senators block these nominations, July will herald the nuclear storm that is Harry Reid and filibuster reform. As excessive use of the filibuster is one of the most frustrating blockades to policy creation, even President Barack Obama has vocalized his support of Reid’s nuclear option should he choose to execute it.
Today, filibusters require 60 votes to end debate, and since there are fewer than 60 Democrats in the Senate, this has effectively allowed the GOP to block the Democratic agenda. While any future changes may allow the Senate to run smoothly and without obstruction, some Democrats are apprehensive that completely tossing the filibuster out the window will reduce their own ability to impede Republicans once the GOP regains the majority.
Therefore, the deal between Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Senate Resolution 16, only slightly shifts the rules of filibusters.
According to Mother Jones, “With the new permanent rules, majority and minority leaders could simply agree to ditch an early filibuster and move on to the motion to proceed… To end a filibuster, the majority must submit a 'cloture' petition to limit debate. But the old rules don't allow a vote on a cloture petition until after an entire business day has passed. Under the new rules, a petition signed by both leaders and seven members of each caucus can be voted on the day after it is submitted.”
Ultimately, filibuster reform is often undertaken with careful consideration, since it may be easily and maddeningly abused. Nonetheless, it is designed to provide a degree of checks and balances on the growing clout of any political party.
As aptly stated by Ezra Klein, a filibuster should “allow a passionate minority to slow down the Senate and make their case to both their colleagues and the American people.” However, this involves a degree of thought, consideration, and bipartisan collaboration we currently see lacking in the Senate. Thus, filibuster reform seems inevitable, and drastic reform will likely be a heated topic of debate come July as Harry Reid refocuses his efforts on it.