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September 2, 2015

Reid’s ‘Nuclear Option’ Playbook

Harry Reid has unlocked the briefcase with the codes to the Senate majority leader’s nuclear arsenal at least once before.

The Nevada Democrat alluded to his playbook for using the “nuclear option” Thursday when he referenced a host of past examples where a majority of senators has changed the effect of Senate rules, including a maneuver he used in 2011.

One October evening that year, Reid became disgusted by what he saw as abuse of an unfamiliar delaying tactic that allowed senators to get test votes on amendments even after he successfully secured the 60 votes to break a filibuster of legislation.

The procedural move involved having the senator presiding over the chamber rule that there was nothing technically dilatory about trying to offer the amendments, but then having Senate Democrats vote against their own presiding officer, changing the precedent.

Reid viewed it as a shot across the bow to Republicans inventing new ways to stall business on the Senate floor, but careful observers of the Senate knew what they were seeing, as our Steven T. Dennis reported at the time:

Reid’s power move appeared similar to a proposed “nuclear option” of changing the Senate filibuster rules with a simple majority. Reid did effectively change chamber rules with a simple majority vote, but the filibuster was unaffected. He said he still believes in the 60-vote rule and the right to filibuster. He also said he still disagrees with a GOP proposal from several years ago to do away with the filibuster for judicial nominations — the original “nuclear option.”

Times have changed to some extent, with Reid preparing to move forward on some form of a “nuclear option” to cut down filibusters of at least executive branch nominees, but the procedure itself was previewed that October evening.

Reid could pull off much the same maneuver this time, despite vociferous GOP opposition, assuming he can round up a majority of Senate Democrats to back him.

The parliamentarian would presumably advise the presiding officer that cloture motions can be required to limit debate on executive branch nominees, like those to seats on the National Labor Relations Board. The presiding officer would then rule one way or the other (either agreeing with the precedent or ignoring it, as some vice presidents have in the past).

Depending on the way that goes, either Reid or Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would likely force a floor vote on overturning the ruling of the chair. That vote would be key: either affirming or denying the parliamentary guidance and past precedent.

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