The “nuclear option” was deployed in the Senate for the third time in six years on Wednesday, as the Republican majority voted along mostly party-lines to shorten the amount of time senators spend debating certain lower-level nominations before a confirmation vote is held.
The change shortens post-cloture debate on nominations to district courts and lower tier executive branch positions (such as a deputy assistant secretary) from a maximum of 30 hours to a limit of 2 hours. It wouldn’t apply to nominations to the Supreme Court, appeals courts, Cabinet-level executive branch positions, or certain federal commissions ― which would all continue to be subject to 30 hours of post-cloture debate like legislation is.
Lacking the bipartisan support needed to alter the Senate’s rules, Republicans instead changed the Senate’s precedent, which only requires a simple majority vote. Here’s how that happened:
- After the Senate voted 95-3 to invoke cloture on the nomination of Jeffrey Kessler to be an Assistant Secretary of Commerce, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) raised a point of order that the limit on post-cloture debate on certain nominations should be 2 hours.
- The chair made a judgment that Senate precedent holds post-cloture debate for those nominations is 30 hours.
- The Senate then voted on keeping the 30 hour limit post-cloture debate, which a majority rejected in a 48-51 vote that effectively overturned the ruling of the chair and changed Senate precedent.
The vote was mostly along party-lines, with Democrats voting to keep the 30 hour debate limit and all Republicans except for Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Mike Lee (R-UT) voting to shorten debate.
This is the same process that played out the previous two times the Senate “went nuclear”:
- In 2013, then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Democrats voted along party-lines to reduce the number of votes required to invoke cloture for all non-Supreme Court nominations to executive and judicial branch positions from a three-fifths majority to a simple majority.
- In 2017, McConnell and Republicans voted along party-lines to lower the number of votes required to invoke cloture on Supreme Court nominations from a three-fifths majority to a simple majority.
This precedent change is similar to a change made with the bipartisan support of 78 senators in 2013, but that modification was limited to the duration of the 113th Congress.
What are both sides saying?
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) spoke on the floor before the vote and said the following:
“The comprehensive campaign by Senate Democrats to delay Senate consideration of presidential nominations is now more than two years old. It’s time for this sorry chapter to end.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) called the rules change “a disgrace” that would “turn the Senate into a conveyor belt” for nominations.
— Eric Revell
(Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore via Flickr / Creative Commons)
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