Democrats in the U.S. Senate Use ‘Nuclear Option’ to Change Filibuster Rules

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News Generates Positive Reaction from Labor and Environmental Groups


James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

By Glynn Wilson –

Democrats in the U.S. Senate fought back and won finally this week against years of Republican blockades and obstruction of the president’s executive branch and judicial nominations by voting to change Senate filibuster rules to guarantee an up or down vote on most nominees.

In a 52-to-48 vote that “substantially altered the balance of power in Washington,” according to the New York Times Editorial Board, the Senate changed its “most infuriating rule” and effectively ended the filibuster on executive and judicial appointments.

“From now on, if any senator tries to filibuster a presidential nominee, that filibuster can be stopped with a simple majority, not the 60-vote requirement of the past. That means a return to the democratic process of giving nominees an up-or-down vote, allowing them to be either confirmed or rejected by a simple majority,” the Times says.

“For five years, Senate Republicans have refused to allow confirmation votes on dozens of perfectly qualified candidates nominated by President Obama for government positions. They tried to nullify entire federal agencies by denying them leaders. They abused Senate rules past the point of tolerance or responsibility. And so they were left enraged and threatening revenge on Thursday when a majority did the only logical thing and stripped away their power to block the president’s nominees.”

The move came as welcome news to labor and environmental groups, both part of the Democratic coalition which has been pressuring the Senate to change the rules for months, even years, as demonstrated earlier this year at the Good Jobs, Green Jobs conference in Washington, D.C..

In their most recent obstruction, Senate Republicans blocked votes on three nominees to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and have blocked Obama’s nomination of Mel Watt as director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency and other posts, including head of the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Labor Relations Board.

The D.C. Circuit has been the Republican Party’s most potent weapon against Obama’s use of executive power, according to Talking Points Memo, “as it has overturned a slew of his regulations on health care, financial reform, environmental protection, labor rules and recess appointments.”


AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka: Glynn Wilson

Reacting to the news on the Senate rule change, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said Republican senators had put political obstruction ahead of what’s best for America, time and again.

“Their unprecedented abuse of the Senate rules is a naked attempt to nullify the last election by denying President Obama his picks for critical judicial and executive branch posts,” Trumka said. “But the Constitution does not allow a minority of one house of Congress to hold the other two branches of government hostage. We applaud the leadership of Senator Reid to uphold democracy by breaking through the gridlock in order to address the pressing needs of our country. The U.S. Senate took an important step forward to end gridlock in the Senate by guaranteeing and up-or-down vote for executive branch and judicial nominees.”


Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune: Glynn Wilson

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune called the rule change “a victory for everyone who believes that a fully-functional Senate and a fully-functional democracy should be the standard, not the exception.”

“Over the last few years, Republican obstructionists in the Senate have abused the rules to create unprecedented gridlock, knowing full well they and their big polluting allies would lose a fair fight in which the majority rules. As a result, almost nothing has been achieved in Washington and the American public has rightly become disgusted with Congress,” Brune said.

“Thanks to the leadership of Senator Harry Reid and his Democratic colleagues, critical nominees who have been blocked from doing their jobs will now be guaranteed an up-or-down vote — and those who use gridlock to score political points have now been denied one of their most prized weapons,” Brune said. “Now, it is time to proceed to a vote to confirm these nominees right away. There is much work left to do to fix the Senate and get our democracy working again for the American people, but today the momentum has shifted in the right direction.”


Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America: Glynn Wilson

Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America, says the rule change “is a good first step toward restoring a Senate that functions as an integral part of our democracy.”

In making the case for the rule change, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Democrat from Nevada, said it was “time to get the Senate working again.”

“Not for the good of the current Democratic majority or some future Republican majority, but for the good of the United States of America,” Reid said. “It’s time to change the Senate before this institution becomes obsolete.”

Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, said this week that she supports a rules change for nominees via the nuclear option after “unconscionable” Republican filibusters of three consecutive individuals to D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“It is unconscionable for a president not to be able to have his cabinet team, his sub-cabinet team, and not be able to appoint judges,” Feinstein said. “I’ve been very shocked by the way very qualified nominees, particularly for the D.C. Circuit, have been filibustered.”

President Obama expressed his own appreciation for the Senate filibuster rule change on Thursday from the White House.

“The vote today I think is an indication that a majority of senators believe, as I believe, that enough is enough,” the president said. “The American people’s business is far too important to keep falling prey, day after day, to Washington politics. … Public service is not a game. It is a privilege. And the consequences of action or inaction are very real.”

Alabama’s two conservative Republican Senators voted against the rule change, as they are often at the forefront of opposing any positive action to make government work by the president of the United States.

Senator Jeff Sessions of Mobile said Reid’s decision to exercise what’s known as the “nuclear option” dismantled minority rights in the Senate and prevents amendments from getting consideration.

“There are no minority rights left, they simply exist at the will of the majority,” Sessions said in speech on the floor of the Senate. He said Reid “is not a dictator. He does not get to dictate how this Senate is operated. He does not have the right to come in and change the rules.”

But in fact, as Majority Leader, with the support of a majority of 51 other Senators, mostly Democrats, he does have the authority to bring about rule changes, as Sessions knows full well since he was there when the filibuster rules were changed to require 60-votes in the first place. The initial rule dating back to the original Constitution required a Senator to stand up and talk non-stop to filibuster appointments or legislation.


Senator Richard Shelby: Glynn Wilson

Senator Richard Shelby of Tuscaloosa called the move a “blatant power grab” by Democrats.

“This drastic move sets a dangerous precedent that could later be expanded to speed passage of expansive and controversial legislation,” Shelby said. “If Democrats think that they deserve more power, they should earn it from voters at the polls in 2014, not swipe it with a drastic rule change in the Senate today.”

But the voters picked President Obama to serve in the White House in two elections in 2008 and 2012, by overwhelming margins, and have voted to give the Democrats a majority in the Senate as well. The Republicans only control the House and much of the Judiciary, since President George W. Bush had no trouble getting his lifetime appointments on the bench for eight long and painful years for working people in America.

“Public regard for the congress has shriveled to just a pitiful remnant of the Founding Fathers’ original intent,” said David Underhill, conservation chair of the Mobile Bay Sierra Club. “This bold, invigorating senatorial stroke is legislative Viagra.”

Filibusters will still be allowed on Supreme Court nominees and on legislation, according to the new rule change, although further rule changes could be coming to force senators to do what they used to have to do back in the days of the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”: Stand up on the floor and talk non-stop to delay action.

© 2013, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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