Harry Reid: The Man Who Threatened to Kill the Senate

“The threat to change Senate rules is a raw abuse of power and will destroy the very checks and balances put in place to prevent absolute power by any one branch of government.” – Senator Harry Reid, April 8, 2005

It’s very rare that we’re able to begin a post with a quote from Harry Reid of which we agree. The trick is that when Harry Reid made the comments his party was in the minority. And he was not the only stalwart Democrat who spoke up against the Republicans’ idea to stop the minority’s ability to subject judicial nominees to filibusters.

“To basically trample and trench on those long-standing historic rules, I think, would disrupt the Senate in a way that would make it extremely difficult for it to function in any meaningful way for the rest of session,” said liberal lion Ted Kennedy.

Sen. Robert Byrd also went nuclear on the idea of the so-called “nuclear option.”

“Some in the Senate are ready to callously incinerate each senator’s right of extended debate,” said the longest serving senator in history. “Hitler never abandoned the cloak of legality.”

Yes, he went there. Byrd compared a change in Senate’s rules to an egregious abuse of power that not even Hitler would have attempted.

So what does Harry Reid do now that his party is in the majority and the pesky Senate rules are getting in the way of him running the chamber in the way he sees fit? He’s threatening to change them. Politico reports

“Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s threat to change filibuster rules is supposed to narrowly focus on presidential nominees to the executive branch.

But his potential move to invoke the “nuclear option” is raising a bigger and more sweeping question that could have huge consequences for future presidents of both parties: Is this the beginning of the end of the filibuster? If the filibuster goes, the Senate would lose a crucial check on majority rights – and it could start looking very much like the House, where the majority always gets its way.”

Changing the filibuster rules is bad enough, but the process by which it must be done is even worse. Way back in 1965 the Senate adopted Rule V, which says that “The rules of the Senate shall continue from one Congress to the next Congress unless they are changed as provided in these rules.” Those same rules require a two-thirds vote to end the filibuster, but there’s also the obscure “constitutional option” which allows the Senate’s presiding officer to ignore the rules against the advice of the parliamentarian. The minority party can object, but Democrats can table the appeal by only 51 votes.

In other words, Harry Reid is willing to break the rules to change the rules. Which begs the question, why have rules at all? The answer, if Reid lives up to his threat, is that there really won’t be any rules. As Chris Cillizza writes for the Washington Post:

“Reid and his Democratic allies seem to believe that by limiting the rule change to simply cabinet and agency appointments, they can keep the long-term implications on the chamber to a minimum.

But, politics works on the slippery slope principle. That means that if Democrats cross the line to change a rule to benefit them when they are in the majority, it sets a precedent for rule-changing that is not limited to filibusters on agency and cabinet nominees in future Senates – including those controlled by Republicans.”

Indeed, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell believes that the slippery slope could ultimately lead to the unraveling of the Senate.

“No majority leader wants written on his tombstone that he presided over the end of the Senate,” McConnell fumed on the Senate floor. “Well, if this majority leader caves to the fringes and let’s this happen, I’m afraid that’s exactly what they’ll write. These are dark days in the history of the Senate.”

And the longer Democrats hold onto power, the darker they’ll be.