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How The 'Nuclear Option' Might Change Washington

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. A momentous event in the U.S. Senate this week that could have far-reaching consequences. Democratic majority leader Harry Reid announced that henceforward, only a simple majority of senators will be required to cut off debate on presidential appointments.

Up to now, such appointments have been subject to filibusters, prolonged debate, if you please, depending on your point of view, that could only be broken with a three-fifths majority of the chamber, usually 60 votes. This new interpretation of the rules, which has not yet been extended to debates on legislation or Supreme Court nominations, should make it easier for the president to fill vacancies in high government posts and on the federal bench.

Republicans immediately charged it will make the Senate even a less collegial institution and lead to even greater partisanship. We're joined now by our insaficionado(ph) of filibusters, senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: What's going to be the difference that we begin to notice?

ELVING: In a sense it's a limited difference, but in the long run it could have some amazing consequences and implications in the long haul. When a president makes an appointment right now, an executive post to head up the Federal Reserve or cabinet post, or fills a judgeship, the appointment gets vetted by a committee and then it gets offered up to the full Senate for a vote.

And up to now, a lot of those recommended appointees have been denied a vote in the full Senate by the threat of a filibuster. Now, people don't actually get out on the floor and talk for days and days and days like in the movies. It's just the threat of one that has the same effect. And the threshold for cutting off that debate has been basically 60 votes, which means the majority Democrats have to recruit a bunch of Republicans to go along with them or they don't have 60 votes.

And as the Republicans have become unreasoningly resistant to providing any cooperation, the process has broken down.

SIMON: Resistant in that they don't even want a vote 'cause they'll lose it.

ELVING: Resistant because once they allow a vote, the simple majority would then confirm the appointee, so if they want to, in some sense or another they object to the nominee, or have some other agenda in mind, they do it by denying a vote on the confirmation. And that's where the filibuster takes place. And in the case of the last several years, we've seen this power to deny a vote on an appointment used more and more and more frequently until it's become extraordinarily common.

Now, the filibuster in general, which was once a very rare thing, has become so much of an automatic part of the procedure, it's essentially - it's as common as the morning prayer by the chaplain in the Senate.

SIMON: Casting back on my constitutional knowledge, which dates back to "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," isn't the logic of this that you don't want a simple majority to steamroller debate and to prevent a lone conscience from being able to stand up and express him or herself?

ELVING: Yes it is, and the Senate has always been about protecting the rights of the minority because the minority, generally speaking, has no rights at all in the House. So this was the place where mistakes that might have been made by steamrolling the minority in the House could be corrected or at least delayed. But we're not talking about legislation here, and we're not talking about, say, appointment to the Supreme Court.

We're talking about every appointee that the president makes in the executive branch and every new federal judgeship that comes open. So we're talking about scores, hundreds of appointments. And the power to hold those up that has been now carried out to its maximum so that half of all the filibusters that there have ever been against presidential appointees have happened in just the last five years.

That's why this tool, having been used the way it has in just these last several years, has essentially forced the Senate majority leader's hand. In his view, he had to blow the whistle and say no more.

SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving. Always a pleasure. Thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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