Harry Reid's nuclear blunder

Pete Souza/White House

President Barack Obama talks with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in the Oval Office, Dec. 4, 2010.

On Thursday night, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) triggered the so-called nuclear option--unilaterally changing Senate rules by a simple majority vote to stop the minority from forcing votes on uncomfortable amendments. It's the same tactic the majority would use to undercut the minority's ability to filibuster. And that's why it's called "nuclear"--it dramatically alters the balance of power between the majority and minority. It is not a step to be taken lightly.

What great matter drove Reid to push the nuclear button? Apparently Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) was threatening to force a vote on the original version of President Obama's jobs bill, to show how few Democrats were willing to support it. In other words, Reid invoked the nuclear option to avoid a political embarrassment for his party.

Recall that in 2005, Republicans contemplated invoking the nuclear option over a matter of substance--to stop Democrats from using filibusters to delay judicial confirmations. Before that crisis was defused, one Democratic senator railed against the GOP plan as an attempt to trample the rights of the minority, calling it a violation of "the constitutional principles of checks and balances" and declaring, "If there were ever an example of an abuse of power, this is it. The filibuster is the last check we have against the abuse of power in Washington."

The senator's name? Harry Reid.

When Reid was in the minority, the nuclear option was an "abuse of power." Now that he's in the majority, it's simply business as usual.

"Reid has established that the majority can ignore the rules in order to gag the minority and declare something dilatory by simple majority vote."--Marc Thiessen

Reid's decision could have immediate consequences. During the 2005 standoff, Reid warned that Democrats would bring the Senate to a halt if Republicans pulled the nuclear trigger. In a letter to then-Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), Reid declared ominously: "The Senate conducts most of its business by cooperation and consent. The minority provides that consent with the expectation that the courtesies it extends to the majority will be met with respect for minority rights. And no Senate right is more fundamental than the right to debate. Should the majority choose to break the rules that give us that right, the majority should not expect to receive cooperation from the minority in the conduct of Senate business. . . . [W]e will be reluctant to enter into any consent agreement that facilitates Senate activities, even on routine matters. . . . We would decline to provide such cooperation in the future if you implement the nuclear option."

Republicans could now respond as Democrats threatened to in 2005--by grinding the Senate to a halt on a range of issues and blocking unanimous consent on even routine matters.

But the damage for Democrats could go far beyond any immediate legislative consequences. Consider: Republicans need to pick up just four seats in 2012 to take back the Senate majority. They have a strong structural advantage going into next year's election. The GOP must defend only 10 seats in the Senate, while Democrats and their allies must defend 23--and many of those Democratic seats are in states where Republicans scored major victories in 2010. As Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, puts it, "They're not only defending twice as many seats as Republicans, but a number of them are in states where the Obama-Reid agenda is deeply unpopular." Add to the mix Obama's plunging job approval, and the odds of a restored Republican majority in the Senate grow.

While Republicans are in a strong position to take control of the Senate, their odds of winning a 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority are remote. But now, thanks to Reid, they may not need 60 votes. Reid has established that the majority can ignore the rules in order to gag the minority and declare something dilatory by simple majority vote. This is a filibuster-busting precedent that a Republican majority could use to overcome Democratic opposition on any number of issues--from taxes and spending to revising the debt-limit deal, reversing defense spending cuts and even repealing Obamacare.

In other words, trampling the rights of the minority when you are poised to become the minority isn't particularly smart. Reid may come to regret his nuclear hypocrisy if he becomes minority leader again in 2012. Indeed, he may have just given the GOP the key to undoing the Obama agenda. That's the problem with nuclear fallout--you never know which direction it will blow.

Marc A. Thiessen is a visiting fellow at AEI.

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