The historic vote by Senate Democrats on Thursday to limit filibusters is unfortunate because it will likely come back to haunt both parties. But there really wasn’t another choice.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., managed to eke out a victory in a 52-48 vote. The decision to go this far was made under duress and the realization that the constant political bickering would undermine service to the American people.
The change means the Senate will be able to cut off debate on executive and judicial branch nominees with a simple majority, as opposed to requiring a supermajority of 60 votes. This new rule does not apply to Supreme Court nominees or legislation, so expect protracted discussion – warranted or not.
How did we get to this moment?
Senate Republicans were relentless. They have filibustered most of the presidential nominees. The latest was Robert L. Wilkins for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Patricia Ann Millett was filibustered late last month. Cornelia T. L. Pillard was rejected last week and Caitlin J. Halligan, filibustered earlier this year, has withdrawn her nomination.
Republicans had no justifiable reason for blocking perfectly qualified candidates. Wilkins is a federal judge. Millett has argued nearly three dozen cases before the Supreme Court. Pillard is a law professor at Georgetown who litigated racial discrimination cases for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. and Halligan is the general counsel for the Manhattan district attorney.
Republicans have had little to say about the candidates’ qualifications. But they have suggested that the Court of Appeals has a lot of time on its hands and have proposed legislation to shrink it by three seats. They don’t want President Obama to influence the court’s direction, but that’s what presidents do. Elections have consequences.
There are three vacancies on the 11-seat court. Right now, it has a conservative bent. Senate Republicans went too far in their determination to keep it that way. Indeed, they have routinely gone too far, not simply using the Senate’s filibuster procedure, but chronically abusing it, to the nation’s detriment. Something had to change.
The filibuster appears nowhere in the Constitution; it is a creation of the Senate and subject to change. Even still, it is a shame matters came to this head. The filibuster – responsibly employed – can perform a useful function in a large and politically diverse nation. It protects a passionate minority from being overrun by a simple majority.
But little in Congress these days is responsible. Not when Republicans shut down the government over a political fight they can’t win. Not when they threaten to default on debts they helped to incur. And not when the Senate routinely blocks presidential appointments simply to thwart a president they despise.
Hopefully, this move will not backfire, as suggested by former Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Republican, and former Rep. Dan Glickman, a Democrat, both speaking from the Bipartisan Policy Center. Both released a statement: “Today’s historic change to Senate rules escalates what is already a hyperpartisan atmosphere in Washington, which is already preventing Congress from addressing our nation’s most significant challenges.”
Such a result should be unacceptable to all members of Congress. This vote should never have had to occur. But it seemed to offer the only hope of letting the Senate do the work that the Constitution requires.