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COLUMN: Nuclear option alters Senate debate rules

From the left


Published: Monday, December 2, 2013

Updated: Monday, December 2, 2013 22:12

Nearly two weeks ago, the U.S. Senate took an unprecedented step by employing the so-called “nuclear option.” While this dramatic name is somewhat misleading, as the nuclear option has nothing to do with national security, it is by no means insignificant. The nuclear option has everything to do with fundamentally altering the debate rules of the Senate.


Those of you who have seen the classic film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” will be familiar with the filibuster––a tactic that can be used by any member of the U.S. Senate to stall legislative proceedings and delay, or even prevent, the passage of a bill. A senator can start a filibuster by simply taking the floor and beginning to talk, and talk and talk. Each of the one hundred U.S. senators have the right to unlimited speech, which means if a senator doesn’t like a bill currently under discussion, he or she can stall the process for as long as it takes to get the bill’s sponsors to either withdraw the bill or come up with an amenable compromise. The only way to end a filibuster –– to make a senator sit down and hush up –– is to have a supermajority of senators vote to end debate, or “invoke cloture.”


The filibuster is used by members of the minority party in the Senate to stall motions taken by the majority, because theoretically, the majority party could otherwise do anything it very well pleased. The filibuster is a protection of the minority party –– a necessary evil, you could call it, that makes the legislative process more inefficient but ensures both sides get a say in the Senate’s final decisions.


The nuclear option drastically changed this. When the Senate Democrats — currently the majority party — invoked the nuclear option, the parliamentary rules of the U.S. Senate were altered so executive and judicial nominees could no longer be filibustered. This means the men and women appointed by the president of the United States to serve in the federal courts or the executive branch now need only 51 votes in the Senate in order to be confirmed. A new standard has been set: any president, Democratic or Republican, whose party controls the Senate is essentially guaranteed that his nominees will be confirmed.


Lest you be tempted to point your finger at the Democrats alone for this escalation of partisanship, review the recent history of the Senate. You’ll find this move is directly in response to the Republicans’ unprecedented partisan obstruction of Democratic nominees. Both parties are guilty of finding delightfully innovative ways to manipulate the rules of the Senate to their advantage. What neither party is realizing is that every move they take now will eventually backfire –– and every move is contributing to the savage divisiveness of Washington.


While the confirmation process will temporarily be streamlined, I suspect the long-term effects of invoking the nuclear option will be quite negative. I echo the words of former U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett: “To me, it shows that Senate precedents which were instrumental in keeping bitter partisanship under control are pretty much gone, which is not a good thing.”


– Briana is a senior majoring in political science and president of the USU Democrats. She is an avid road cyclist and a 2013 Truman Scholar. Comments can be sent to Briana at

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