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March Mania

OUR OPINION: Filibuster change saps strength of Senate

In the world of missiles and bombs, the "nuclear option" is meant to slash the risk of nuclear weapons ever being used. Each side brandishes its nukes, makes clear its willingness to launch them -- and then refrains from doing so, out of the shared belief that both sides lose in the event of a nuclear exchange.

That's how the "nuclear option" regarding the U.S. Senate's filibuster rules should have been resolved, too.

After all, weakening the filibuster by simple majority vote has been called the "nuclear option" for a reason. And now that Senate Democrats (including North Dakota and Minnesota's Democratic senators) have pushed the button, they're likely to find that both their world in the Senate and that of the Republicans have been left a lot worse off.

Fifty-two out of 55 Senate Democrats exercised their option last week by voting to let most presidential nominations advance by majority vote. That may sound routine, but analysts are right in calling it the most important Senate vote of the year.

That's because the previous 60-vote threshold generally forced the majority to give the minority a say.

And that, in turn, has made the Senate the most bipartisan of Washington's institutions by forcing the compromises Americans say they want, as Dana Milbank of the Washington Post pointed out.

"The Senate in 2013 is hardly a healthy institution," Milbank wrote.

"Yet it has achieved far more than the House -- passing bipartisan immigration legislation and a farm bill and working out deals to avoid default and to end the federal government shutdown -- largely because, until Thursday, Senate rules required the majority party to win votes from the minority. ... What (Senate Majority Leader Harry) Reid and his fellow Democrats effectively did was take the chamber of Congress that still functioned at a modest level and turn it into a clone of the House, which functions not at all."

True, the new "50-plus-one" rules apply only to most nominations, not legislation or the filling of Supreme Court vacancies. But the wall has been breached. And if that happened (as it did) over a cause as ordinary as Appeals Court nominations, it's hard to believe either party will respect the filibuster the next time a Supreme Court seat comes open.

Also true: Republicans provoked the Democrats by abusing the filibuster, gumming up the Senate's works even beyond the high level of obstructionism set by Democrats the last time they were in the minority.

But that was cause for nuclear negotiation, not detonation. It had worked before in the Senate when either party approached the edge. It could have worked again, perhaps resulting in the majority party gaining full power to confirm presidential appointments (but not judgeships, which come with lifetime tenure).

"We need to change the rules, but to change it in the way we changed it today means there are no rules except as the majority wants them," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., one of three Democrats to vote against the change.

"This precedent is going to be used, I fear, to change the rules on consideration of legislation, and down the road -- we don't know how far down the road; we never know that in a democracy -- but, down the road, the hard-won protections and benefits for our people's health and welfare will be lost."

Spoken like a centrist who appreciates the gravity and stability of supermajority votes vs. the transient and less-stable nature of simple majorities. Fellow centrists such as Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., should have joined him.