Democratic Congressman Raises Specter Of "Nuclear Option"

06/30/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Sam Stein Senior Politics Editor, The Huffington Post

Three years ago, the United States Senate nearly came to a stand still as the Republican majority, citing Democratic obstructionism over judicial appointments, threatened to eliminate the use of a filibuster.

At the time, such a procedural tit-for-tat was decried by Democratic legislators as a major constitutional power-grab, something that would prompt them to, in essence, shut down the Senate by preventing consideration of routine business. The "nuclear option" - as it became known - became a symbolic crest of Bush administration partisanship, a doomsday possibility averted only by a 11th hour deal by the "Gang Of 14" concerning those judicial appointments.

Now, however, discussion of the elimination of the filibuster has reemerged. And this time, with the balance of power reversed, it is a Democratic congressman who is raising the need to used parliamentary procedures to circumvent minority party obstructionism.

Appearing on The Young Turks show, representative Pete DeFazio of Oregon said that, while he was "not privy to the highest councils" of Senate leadership, he "believed" that his party was considering using the nuclear option to help pass some its legislative priorities.

"I don't understand Senate culture," said the Congressman. "You know, it's a different world over there. But I have friends over there who have that position. You know, Bernie Sanders, Sherrod Brown, and you know, other progressives who are over there, and I think it is real. I think if we get a Democratic President, we got a good majority in the House, we're working with a Democratic President...sending him bills, and there's, you know, say 41 or 42 Republicans who are blocking all our bills, I think you would find at that point that there would be, you know, that they may well push through, change the rules, and say look, 'We're going to have a majority rule placed here for change. 51 votes wins all.'"

DeFazio's remarks represent some of the most public acknowledgments to date of the extent of Democratic congressional frustration. But, as a member of the House of Representatives, it is not entirely clear how much he is reflecting the sentiment of the other legislative body.

More evident is that Democrats in Congress are beginning to sense public dissatisfaction over inaction on several key issues. As The Young Turk's Cenk Uygur noted to DeFazio: "On the major issues, there's been loss after loss." His reference was congressional battles over war funding, troop withdrawals, and climate change legislation, among others. All of these issues have had majority support in the Senate, but failed to receive the 60 votes needed for cloture.

"I gotta disagree with you," DeFazio said of the idea that Democrats have failed to gain significant traction in the Senate. "I mean, it's about getting to a, you know, a workable majority, and hopefully getting a Democratic President, Barack Obama. And there will be a whole different agenda in Washington D.C. I mean, the President under our system has extraordinary power, because anything he vetoes requires a two thirds vote to override. I mean, we are nowhere near two thirds. Barack Obama would not be vetoing a bill that said time lines to get out of Iraq, which means all we would need is a simple majority. Except in the Senate you gotta deal with that 60 vote issue. And there's a possibility the Senate could change the rules. The Republicans threatened to do that, and it made the Democrats scared, and they rained in their filibusters. The Republicans have had more filibusters, well they don't really filibuster anymore, they say they're going to filibuster, the bills get pulled. In the, you know, in the first year of this congress, than in any entire congress in the history of the United States."

Indeed, in the current session of Congress, Senate Republicans have filibustered more than 70 pieces of legislation (the prior record was 62 cloture votes). Recourse from such obstructionism, however, does not seem to be in the offering. Democrats are expected to pick up several seats in the Senate this upcoming election (up to, possibly, six or seven). But, with the possible defection of Sen. Joseph Lieberman and the current slim majority, such gains would still put the party short of the 60-vote threshold needed for cloture.

Should DeFazio's prophecy prove true, it would remark a stunning if not ironic reversal of power structure in the Senate. In 2005, Republicans were not able to keep the entire party in line behind the idea of a nuclear option in large part because several members worried about the day in which they would be the minority. Democrats, meanwhile, denounced the procedural move as a direct affront on the constitutional powers-that-be, a step that would effectively remove the idea of minority power in the legislative process.