The biggest Congressional news story yesterday was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid invoking the rarely used procedure of appealing the ruling of the chair to the full Senate. When this is done, a simple majority of the Senate decides how the Senate rules should be interpreted. A majority of current senators are the people in our government with the binding authority to say what the Senate rules actually mean, so a simple majority of senators can basically change the Senate rules at any time.
McConnell moved to suspend the rules and shift debate over to the American Jobs Act. Reid argued that doing so amounted to another filibuster, because it required 60 votes to move back to the original bill, and so therefore was out of order. Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who happened to be the presiding officer at the time, asked the Senate parliamentarian what he thought. The parliamentarian advised Begich that McConnell’s motion was in order.
Reid then appealed the ruling, following a script that advocates of ending the filibuster wrote long ago. What some senators call the “constitutional option,” and what others call the “nuclear option,” involves as a first step appealing a ruling that a filibuster is in order. The second step is to defeat a motion to table that appeal, which is exactly what happened next, with all but one Democrat sticking with Reid. (Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) voted against Reid; Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) didn’t vote.)
With the chair overruled, McConnell’s motion was declared out of order, setting a narrow precedent that motions to suspend the rules are out of order during a post-cloture period.
While Reid used this tactic only to set a very narrow precedent to stop Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell from exploiting the Senate rules for yet another way to unnecessarily slow down the chamber, this same basic procedure can be used to change the interpretation of any Senate rule. There is no reason a majority of the Senate couldn’t use this same tactic to eliminate the filibuster altogether. That would allow a simple majority of senators to pass any bill they wanted, as the Constitution clearly intended the Senate to work.
What Reid did yesterday really wasn’t the so called “nuclear option” because it didn’t eliminate the filibuster, but he used the same simple Senate procedure that would be used in the “nuclear option” to change the interpretation of rules regarding debate.
The important take away from the events of yesterday is that changing any Senate rule is incredibly easy and only requires a simple majority. All it takes is a motion and a few votes. It can be done in an afternoon.
When in 2009 and 2010 Senate Democrats said they “couldn’t” pass the bills they campaigned on because of the filibuster that was a total and complete lie. As you can see, changing the Senate rules with 51 votes in the Senate really is that easy. If Senate Democrats were serious about passing the laws they promised, they could use this same basic procedure to prevent a filibuster from stopping them.