Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can dish it out, but he can't take it.
Harry Reid was Senate Democratic Whip when George W. Bush became president. Under him, the Senate Democrats mounted an unprecedented filibuster campaign against Bush's judicial nominees. According to The Heritage Foundation's Todd Gaziano, the average number of days a Court of Appeals nominee waited for final Senate action grew from 39 during the Reagan Presidency, 95 during the George H. W. Bush Presidency, and 115 during the Clinton Presidency to 400 during the first 22 months of the second Bush presidency.
The Democrats' unprecedented delays imposed upon Bush's judicial nominees resulted in talk of using the nuclear option to end the Democrats' filibusters. The nuclear option is shorthand for changing the Senate rules so that presidential nominations would no longer be subject to filibuster -- meaning they could be approved with just 51 votes, as opposed to the usual 60.
This is something that Senate Democrats warned about in apocalyptic terms when they were in the minority.
In May 2005 it looked as if Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist was actually going to pull the nuclear trigger.
Sen. Reid gave a good speech on the Senate floor explaining why nuking the filibuster would be wrong:
The filibuster is far from a “procedural gimmick.” It is part of the fabric of this institution. It was well known in colonial legislatures, and it is an integral part of our country’s 217 years of history.
The first filibuster in the U.S. Congress happened in 1790. It was used by lawmakers from Virginia and South Carolina who were trying to prevent Philadelphia from hosting the first Congress.
Since 1790, the filibuster has been employed hundreds and hundreds of times.
Senators have used it to stand up to popular presidents. To block legislation. And yes – even to stall executive nominees.
[. . .]It encourages moderation and consensus. It gives voice to the minority, so that cooler heads may prevail.
It also separates us from the House of Representatives – where the majority rules.
And it is very much in keeping with the spirit of the government established by the Framers of our Constitution: Limited Government…Separation of Powers…Checks and Balances.
Mr. President, the filibuster is a critical tool in keeping the majority in check. This central fact has been acknowledged and even praised by Senators from both parties.
[. . .]
For 200 years, we’ve had the right to extended debate. It’s not some “procedural gimmick.”
It’s within the vision of the Founding Fathers of our country. They established a government so that no one person – and no single party – could have total control.
Some in this Chamber want to throw out 217 years of Senate history in the quest for absolute power.
Reid wasn't the only Senate Democrat to speak against the nuclear option in 2005. Senators Obama, Biden, Clinton, Baucus, Dodd, Feinstein, and Schumer, also railed against the proposed use of reconciliation to end Democrat filibusters.
You can watch highlights of their speeches in this video:
Barack Obama 4/25/05: "The President hasn’t gotten his way. And that is now prompting a change in the Senate rules that really I think would change the character of the Senate forever…what I worry about would be that you essentially still have two chambers the House and the Senate but you have simply majoritarian absolute power on either side, and that’s just not what the founders intended."
Hillary Clinton 5/23/2005: "So this president has come to the majority here in the Senate and basically said 'change the rules.' 'Do it the way I want it done.' And I guess there just weren’t very many voices on the other side of the isle that acted the way previous generations of senators have acted and said 'Mr. President we are with you, we support you, but that’s a bridge too far we can’t go there.' You have to restrain yourself Mr. President."
Charles Schumer 5/18/2005: "We are on the precipice of a crisis, a constitutional crisis. The checks and balances which have been at the core of this Republic are about to be evaporated by the nuclear option. The checks and balances which say that if you get 51% of the vote you don’t get your way 100% of the time. It is amazing it’s almost a temper tantrum."
Harry Reid 5/18/2005: "Mr. President the right to extended debate is never more important than the one party who controls congress and the white house. In these cases the filibuster serves as a check on power and preserves our limited government.">
Dianne Feinstein 5/18/2005: "The nuclear option if successful will turn the senate into a body that could have its rules broken at any time by a majority of senators unhappy with any position taken by the minority. It begins with judicial nominations. Next will be executive appointments and then legislation."
Joe Biden 5/23/2005: "This nuclear option is ultimately an example of the arrogance of power. It is a fundamental power grab."
Harry Reid 5/18/2005: "But no we are not going to follow the Senate rules. No, because of the arrogance of power of this Republican administration."
Chris Dodd 5/18/2005: "I’ve never passed a single bill worth talking about that didn’t have a lead co-sponsor that was a Republican. And I don’t know of a single piece of legislation that’s ever been adopted here that didn’t have a Republican and Democrat in the lead. That’s because we need to sit down and work with each other. The rules of this institution have required that. That’s why we exist. Why have a bicameral legislative body? Why have two chambers? What were the framers thinking about 218 years ago? They understood Mr. President that there is a tyranny of the majority."
Dianne Feinstein 5/18/2005: "If the Republican leadership insists on forcing the nuclear option the senate becomes ipso facto the House of Representatives where the majority rules supreme and the party of power can dominate and control the agenda with absolute power."
Hillary Clinton 5/23/2005: "You’ve got majority rule and then you have the senate over here where people can slow things down where they can debate where they have something called the filibuster. You know it seems like it’s a little less than efficient -- well that’s right it is. And deliberately designed to be so."
Joe Biden 5/23/05: "I say to my friends on the Republican side you may own the field right now but you won’t own it forever I pray God when the Democrats take back control we don't make the kind of naked power grab you are doing."
Charles Schumer 5/23/2005: "They want their way every single time. And they will change the rules, break the rules, and misread the constitution so that they will get their way."
Hillary Clinton 5/23/2005: "The Senate is being asked to turn itself inside out, to ignore the precedent to ignore the way our system has work, the delicate balance that we have obtain that has kept this constitution system going, for immediate gratification of the present President."
Max Baucus 5/19/2005: "This is the way Democracy ends. Not with a bomb but with a gavel."
Cooler heads prevailed in 2005. The so-called Gang of 14 negotiated a compromise which avoided the deployment of the nuclear option.
In 2008, Reid talked about the importance of the filibuster with former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle during an interview about Reid's book, "The Good Fight." Reid told Daschle that as long as he was the Senate leader the Senate would not face the nuclear option. That the threat of using it was a "black chapter in the history of the Senate" and that he really believes it will "ruin our country."
Don't take my word for it. You can watch the discussion between Reid and Daschle here. You can also read a transcript of it below:
Daschle: You talk Harry about the nuclear option, you just mentioned it on chapter seven of your book, describes the circumstances with the nuclear option. Just so our viewers can better understand, what was the nuclear option and what likelihood is there that we going to have to face nuclear option-like questions again?
Reid: What the Republicans came up with was a way to change our country forever. They made a decision if they didn’t get every judge they wanted, every judge they wanted, then they were going to make the Senate just like the House of Representatives. We would in effect have a unicameral legislature where a simple majority would determine whatever happens.
In the House of Representatives today Pelosi is the leader. Prior to that was Hastert. Whatever they wanted, Hastret or Pelosi, they get done. The rules over there allow that. The Senate was set up to be different. That was the genius, the vision, of our founding fathers – that this bicameral legislature, which was unique, had two different duties. One, was as Franklin said, to pour the coffee into the saucer and let it cool off. That‘s why you have the ability to filibuster and to terminate filibuster. They wanted to get rid of all that. That’s what the nuke option all about.
Daschle: And is there any likelihood that we’re going to face circumstances like that again?
Reid: As long as I’m the leader, the answer is no. I think we should just forget that. That is a black chapter in the history of the Senate. I hope we never, ever get to that again. Because I really do believe it will ruin our country. I’ve said, I said during that debate, that in all my years in government, that is the most important thing I ever worked on.
Reid put it this way in his book, the nuclear option "would lead to the end of the United States Senate":
"I just couldn’t believe that Bill Frist was going to do this. The storm had been gathering all year, and word from conservative columnists and in conservative circles was that Senator Frist of Tennessee, who was the Majority Leader, had decided to pursue a rules change that would kill the filibuster for judicial nominations. And once you opened that Pandora’s box, it was just a matter of time before a Senate leader who couldn’t get his way on something moved to eliminate the filibuster for regular business as well. And that, simply put, would be the end of the United States Senate." – Harry Reid in his 2008 book "The Good Fight"
Despite his strongly held beliefs about how ill advised using the nuclear option is, Reid has let it be known that he intends to use it, perhaps as early as Tuesday, to prevent Republican filibusters over Obama's nominations. And Reid thinks he has the votes to nuke the filibuster. Why would Reid do such a thing after all he has said and written about how terrible doing so would be? What could justify Reid's use of the nuclear option he has repeatedly said "would be the end of the United States Senate," "would ruin the country," and even the threat of using it was "a black chapter in the history of the Senate?"
According to the Washington Times, Reid wants to use the nuclear option to stop Republicans from being able to filibuster when Obama's nominations to executive branch or independent agency positions -- judges. Reid and Obama tried to make the case that Obama's judicial nominations were being delayed longer -- three times as longer than those of President George W. Bush, but the fact checkers debunked those claims. Politifact found those claims to be only half true, and the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler awarded Obama's assertion two Pinocchios.
The only thing that has changed is now the Democrats have the presidency and control the Senate. And it doesn't matter whether the controlling party nukes the filibuster for judicial or executive nominations. As Reid has written, once you open that Pandora’s box, it's just a matter of time before a Senate leader who can't get his way on something moves to eliminate the filibuster for regular business as well. "And that, simply put, would be the end of the United States Senate."
If Senator Reid does nuke the filibuster, his place in Senate history will be that nuclear black chapter the prevention of which he claims was the most important thing he ever worked on in all his years in government.