Deal or No Deal: Senate Nuclear Option

Sam Whitehorn

Former Senior Democratic Senate Staffer Sam Whitehorn provides commentary on the consequences of the nuclear option.

There goes the neighborhood… After the Senate voted this morning to obliterate its rules, the boulders that now litter the path forward are significant. The Senate is a proud institution, and one I served with pride and purpose for almost 17 years. I sat through filibusters (e.g., Senator D’Amato talking forever about Smith-Corona), watched Senator Bradley bang on his podium in recognition of a shooting in L.A., and many other things. Watching the demise today is not good for debate, negotiation, and mostly compromise.

We watched bill after bill come over from the House, which is effectively a dictatorship no matter who is running it, and let many of them die a peaceful death. But we considered many of the ideas, and drove compromises. We did it after 9-11, and we did it after TWA 800 exploded.

Going forward, despite the extraordinary change, somehow the Senate has to restore its purpose, and now fall closer and closer to the House model. That is not what was intended by the founding fathers, as different interests sat and created far reaching legislation that set the stage for our country’s growth and future.

Watch for signs of life after the Senate returns from its two week recess. It may take more time than two weeks, but even if it does begin to be able to agree on some issues, like appropriations, the healing process will take far longer.

I may not remember the playground fights we had as kids. But, watching the Senate this week, an institution I served with pride and purpose, evokes distant memories of things like “they did it first,” and “two wrongs don’t make it right.” Yet, the Senate is not a playground. And the consequences of the nuclear option are substantial to all of us. It is an incredible place with some of the best and brightest we have. Strip away the top level of political discord, and members and staff agree privately on many things, including the process for confirming Justices. This week, however, it is an institution that is forcing members to decide whether to vote for or against a judge, with the consequence of not approval or disapproval, but rather a huge change in the way the Senate is supposed to operate.

Several of us, former senior Democratic Senate staff, argued vehemently against changing the filibuster rules in 2013. In the end, those arguments were overcome by the desire to act, as one party decided to slow roll the entire nomination process. But, that ability to slow down or stop the process, as frustrating as it is to both sides, is what traditionally has given the Senate the ability to figure out a means to negotiate and drive consensus on legislation. The all or nothing attitude on both edges of the spectrum, means that the need for compromise is even stronger, not weaker. The consequences of the actions this week are real.

As the Senate moves down the path, I completely understand the frustration and passion felt by the Democrats because of last year, and recognize the Republicans’ argument on precedent. As Yogi Berra said, “it ain’t over till it’s over,” but we all may lose something as the Senate devolves.