11/22/2013 08:42 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Friday Talking Points -- Harry Reid's Explosive Week

This was a big week in the political world, so we've got a lot to get through before we get to the big, explosive "nuclear option" story. In fact, it was even a big week just for political anniversaries. Fifty years ago this week, an event of no little importance happened. I speak, of course, tomorrow's 50th anniversary of the first broadcast of Doctor Who by the BBC.

OK, I apologize for that, but I just wanted everyone to know up front that since I wasn't alive when John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated, there will be no personal remembrances today. There's plenty of that sort of thing out there in the wider media universe today, in case you would like to indulge. If truth be told, what actually astonished me this week was how little attention was paid to another historic benchmark: the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. I didn't see -- not once, mind you -- a single instance of anyone just broadcasting an uninterrupted recitation of the speech. Even though the entire thing is only about two minutes long. It's less than 300 words, for Pete's sake, and Ken Burns (of PBS documentary fame) even put together a nice video of former presidents reciting it. Yet I still didn't see a single unedited reading of the speech -- on its 150th anniversary, no less. Maybe I'm just looking at the wrong media, but I consider this omission pretty damn pathetic, personally. I mean, the speech is two minutes long, people! I saw extended commentary on the speech, mind you, some of it taking up several times the length of time of the actual speech itself, and yet nobody just presented Lincoln's words (which truly do stand alone in exemplary fashion).

Sigh. Maybe my expectations are just too high. This is the mainstream media we're talking about, after all. They've got more important things to do -- like telling each other to ingest human feces. I really, really wish I made that last one up, but sadly, I didn't have to.

Before we get into weightier matters, it was a rather sad week for three House members. Grace Meng got mugged on the streets of Washington and Creigh Deeds was stabbed by his own son, who then committed suicide. Our thoughts go out to them and their families. The other story was self-inflicted, so we're not offering any sympathy at all to Republican House member Trey Radel, who (it was announced) had previously been caught buying $250 worth of cocaine on the streets of Washington. He isn't going to resign after his conviction, mind you, he's just going to take a bit of time off. Isn't that nice -- a job which allows you to take personal time off to deal with a drug problem? It'd be a little more appropriate if Radel hadn't earlier voted for a bill to drug test welfare recipients. How about we drug test Congress, first? After all, they get federal money too, right? Let's see some mandatory pee-in-a-cup tests, on a regular (and unannounced) basis. And how about we start with every member who has ever voted to drug test anyone else, at any time during their career? I mean, the hypocrisy is so thick you can cut it with a razor blade, bag it up, and sell it on the streetcorners for souvenirs. So to speak.

In other "Republicans must be high" news, the House GOP met to discuss their agenda for the upcoming year. Except (you simply can not make this stuff up, folks) that what they gathered to discuss was a blank sheet of paper with "Agenda 2014" written at the top. Future historians may point back to this as being the moment when the Republican Party just gave up even trying to pretend it was for anything. Reflecting their empty agenda, John Boehner thought it would be a funny to joke that the House "shouldn't even remain in session in December." They've scheduled a whopping 15 work days for November and December combined, so I guess the best response is: "Who would even notice?" But it's really not that funny, when you think about it. Even more ironic, the next line in the article reporting this knee-slapper was: "Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California, the No. 3 House Republican, told activists last week that there isn't enough time to complete immigration reform this year." Sorry, no time for that sort of thing. We're busy meeting to discuss a blank sheet of paper, maybe we'll get to it later.

Democrats, meanwhile, got gay marriage approved in two more states (Hawai'i and Illinois), and -- much like when the last few states did so -- it was barely even newsworthy on the national stage. Think about that for just a moment. We've come a long way on the issue when states number 15 and 16 approve gay marriage -- and the reaction barely rises above "ho hum." That, my friends, is what progress feels like.

And finally, before we get to all the really big news of the week, a town in Utah seems to be competing with Congress for sheer laziness. It seems that Wallsburg just plumb forgot to hold an election this year. Whoops! They also spaced out on holding an election a few years ago, for added irony. Maybe they should try the "there's something in the water" excuse?


We still have two quick Honorable Mention awards to hand out before we get to the big story, though. Both are for introducing legislation, and the first goes to Representative Gwen Moore, for her "Domestic Violence Criminal Disarmament Act," which would remove guns from domestic violence criminals. The second goes to Representative Louise Slaughter for her "No Budget, No Vacation" bill, which would force Congress to stay in session throughout the holiday season this year, if they don't get a budget deal together by the mid-December deadline. Maybe that'll make John Boehner stop joking around about how little they have to do next month. It's certainly worth a shot.

Whew! We have finally gotten through all the other news of the week and cleared the launch pad for the biggest story of the week: Harry Reid grows a spine! OK, maybe that's a little harsh, but some people have been waiting for this "nuclear option" moment for a long time now, Harry.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid decided this week that enough was enough, and he finally pulled the trigger on the "nuclear option" in the Senate. By a 52-48 vote, the rules of the Senate were changed so that executive nominees and judicial nominees (below the Supreme Court level) can no longer be filibustered, but instead will face only majority votes in order to be confirmed.

This is historic. It is the biggest change in the filibuster since 1975. And it is long overdue.

Since we don't have a lot of extra room here, we'll point out some commentary by others as to what this will all mean. First, an article for those with not much time or interest, which points out (in two easy charts) what the spin is from both sides of the aisle. A little more in-depth is a list of nine changes which will result (which has the best chart I've so far seen, to show the Republican filibuster abuse which led to this historic vote). Or you can go a little more in-depth to the explanations. And then there's a very wonky article, which explains the parliamentary ins and outs of the change.

Of course, being Washington, there are also articles which fall into the "pearl-clutching nonsense" category. Dana Milbank and Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post both obligingly wrote these entirely predictable "Centrism above all!" opinions. Both of these fully admit that the Democrats were entirely justified in what they did, but they both hew to the "Democrats are supposed to fight like gentlemen, according to the rules that their opponents are ignoring... and then Democrats are supposed to gracefully lose, every time" theory of politics. Milbank, in particular, is amusing to read if only for the sloppy citations of the historic timeline of the filibuster.

But even he didn't win the "fast and loose" award for factual inaccuracy at the Washington Post this week. The original article (by Paul Kane) published right after the historic vote -- as hard news, mind you, not as opinion -- started off with so many inaccuracies packed into two paragraphs, it is tough to count them all. This is how the article originally appeared (time-stamped "November 21, 10:11 AM"):

The rule change means federal judge nominees and executive-office appointments can be confirmed by a simple majority of senators, rather than the 60-vote super majority that has been required for more than two centuries.

The change does not apply to Supreme Court nominations. But the vote, mostly along party lines, reverses nearly 225 years of precedent and dramatically alters the landscape for both Democratic and Republican presidents, especially if their own political party holds a majority of, but fewer than 60, Senate seats.

Point by point, let's refute this, shall we? First, a "60-vote super majority" has only been around since we had 100 senators (or 50 states). The first Senate was convened with only 20 members, in fact. It wouldn't be until 1848 until the Senate even had a total of 60 members, when Wisconsin became the 30th state.

Next, "nearly 225 years of precedent" is just laughably wrong. The first filibuster didn't even happen until the 1830s. "Cloture" didn't exist until 1917. And it wasn't until 1949 that cloture could be invoked on votes for presidential nominations. So "nearly 225 years" becomes "64 years" -- and even that's being generous, because from 1949 to 1975 the supermajority was actually two-thirds (or 67 votes, as it stood in 1975, before being reduced to only 60 votes).

And lastly, just as icing on the "we didn't take the five freakin' minutes necessary to check our facts, even on Wikipedia" cake, confirmation votes have never required more than a majority. Cloture votes (taken before the actual confirmation vote) have, but not the vote which actually confirms the nominee.

This article was corrected, later in the day, to read:

Democrats used a rare parliamentary move to change the rules so that federal judicial nominees and executive-office appointments can advance to confirmation votes by a simple majority of senators, rather than the 60-vote supermajority that has been the standard for nearly four decades.

No correction notice was added. Indeed, you can even tell, just by looking at the full URL (which contains: "senate-poised-to-limit-filibusters-in-party-line-vote-that-would-alter-centuries-of-precedent"), how wrong the original article was. My faith in the Washington Post fact-checkers has been noticeably reduced, I have to say.

But the funniest Washington Post article of the week (seriously, if you only read one of these articles, this is the one to read) was written by James Downie, who began with:

If the Founding Fathers could see the Senate after today's vote by Senate Democrats to prohibit filibusters of most presidential appointments, they would, of course, be appalled. "What are all these women doing here?" they would ask.

We'll come back to this article later, in the talking points.

For this momentous change in the way the Senate operates, we award this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week to both Harry Reid and Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon. Reid for holding the vote, and for following through (finally!) on the threat of the "nuclear option," and Merkley for championing the idea for the past few years.

This is Reid's sixteenth MIDOTW award, which puts him in a tie with Nancy Pelosi for second place on the all-time list (Barack Obama is in the lead). It is Merkley's fifth award, moving him up to a tie for ninth place. Congratulations are in order for both, for their historic efforts.

[Congratulate Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on his Senate contact page and Senator Jeff Merkley on his Senate contact page, to let them know you appreciate their efforts.]


We have no awards-winners here this week. It was too exciting a week to be disappointed in anybody, even the three Democrats who didn't vote for the nuclear option.


Volume 283 (11/22/13)

We're going to devote all the talking points to the nuclear option this week, due to its overwhelming importance, but before we do we have a few loose ends. Because we had no space for anything but an overview here, if you'd like to see my reasoning for why Harry was right to launch his "nuke" (and why it involved a very low amount of political risk for Democrats), I wrote about the subject on Wednesday. Yesterday, I wrote about a little-noticed side effect of the new rules (something which Ezra Klein picked up on this morning, I should mention): with the filibuster threat gone, Obama is now a lot more free to shuffle cabinet members, should he so choose.

Because we're "filling the tree" (to get both Christmassy and senatorial at the same time) with seven filibuster talking points, we do have two other subjects to quickly address beforehand. The first is a rather easy, do-it-yourself talking point creation exercise. Democrats are trying to extend unemployment benefits so that a million people won't get a lump of coal in their stocking this year. See how easy it is to come up with these? Check out the talking points Democrats are already using, and see if you can't come up with one of your own (in the comments). There's even a "Grinchographic" in the article, for fun!

Secondly, Republicans are bound to be pouncing on Obama's announcement that next year's Obamacare signup period has been pushed back until after the midterm elections. There's a very easy answer to "he's doing it for politics!" which is: so are Republicans. The Republicans on the budget committee are begging for a two-year budget to be agreed to now, because if they don't get it we're going to have a big fat budget battle at the beginning of October next year -- just in time for the Tea Partiers to shut the government down again, one month before the same election. Again, this one's pretty easy to turn into a Democratic talking point, so have at it.

What a busy week it's been! But even with all else that's been going on, the main subject under discussion this weekend is the "nuclear option" in the Senate. So here are seven ways to address the issue.


   They honored none

This first talking point comes from the aforementioned article by James Downie. He succinctly sums up where we are and how we got here:

There is no mention of the filibuster in the Constitution. Until very recently in U.S. history, filibusters were rarely used. Half of all filibusters of executive-branch nominees have occurred under President Obama, and it was obvious from the first day of his presidency that Republicans would use the tactic to hamstring the government and block Obama.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, then, had every right to push for changes to filibuster rules four years ago, when GOP use of the filibuster was already out of control. But instead, Reid offered deal after deal to Senate Republicans. They accepted some. They honored none. Instead, the delaying tactics have continued.


   The facts, part 1

The rest of these talking points are all taken directly from Majority Leader Reid's remarks on the Senate floor. The first two are the strongest talking points imaginable: facts. Give the American people the raw numbers, and let them decide whether Republicans have been abusing the filibuster or not (note: Reid is rounding up from 49 percent here, the actual number is 82 out of 168):

The need for change is obvious. In the history of the Republic, there have been 168 filibusters of executive and judicial nominations. Half of them have occurred during the Obama Administration -- during the last four and a half years. These nominees deserve at least an up-or-down vote. But Republican filibusters deny them a fair vote and deny the President his team.


   20 out of 23

I added emphasis to this one, to highlight the worst number in the entire litany of facts. Because pretty much everyone can easily understand the level of abuse when they hear "20 out of 23."

In the last three weeks alone, Republicans have blocked up-or-down votes on three highly qualified nominees to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, considered by many to be the second highest court in the land. Republicans have blocked four of President Obama's five nominees to the D.C. Circuit, whereas Democrats approved four of President Bush's six nominees to this important court. Today, 25 percent of the D.C. Circuit Court is vacant. There isn't a single legitimate objection to the qualifications of any of these nominees. Yet Republicans refused to give them an up-or-down vote -- a simple yes-or-no vote. Republicans simply don't want President Obama to make any appointments at all to this vital court.

Further, only 23 district court nominees have been filibustered in the entire history of this country. Twenty of them were nominated by President Obama. With one out of every 10 federal judgeships vacant, millions of Americans who rely on courts that are overworked and understaffed are being denied the justice they rightly deserve. More than half the nation's population lives in a part of the country that's been declared a "judicial emergency."


   More facts

This one I had to paraphrase in minor ways to preserve the flow of the narrative, but all of these key phrases were cut-and-pasted directly from Reid's speech.

There are currently 75 executive branch nominees ready to be confirmed by the Senate that have been waiting an average of 140 days for confirmation. One executive nominee to the agency that safeguards the water our children and grandchildren drink and the air they breathe has waited more than 800 days for confirmation. Senate Republicans filibustered a nominee for Secretary of Defense for the first time in history -- even though he was a former Republican Senator and a decorated war hero, nominated in a time of war. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's nomination was pending in the Senate for a record 34 days, more than three times the previous average. Senate Republicans also blocked a sitting member of Congress from another Administration position for the first time since 1843. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau went for more than two years without a leader, because Republicans refused to accept the law of the land -- because they wanted to roll back a law that protects consumers from the greed of big Wall Street banks.

It is a troubling trend that Republicans are willing to block executive branch nominees even when they have no objection to the qualifications of the nominee. Instead, they block qualified executive branch nominees to circumvent the legislative process. They block qualified executive branch nominees to force wholesale changes to laws. They block qualified executive branch nominees to restructure entire executive branch departments. And they block qualified judicial nominees because they don't want President Obama to appoint any judges to certain courts.


   Hit them where it hurts

There are few things more satisfying than hearing a Democrat quote the Bible at the family-values Republicans. Point out the hypocrisy, Harry!

At the beginning of this Congress, the Republican Leader pledged that, quote, "this Congress should be more bipartisan than the last Congress." We're told in scripture that, "When a man makes a vow... he must not break his word" (Numbers 30:2). In January, Republicans promised to work with the majority to process nominations... in a timely manner by unanimous consent, except in extraordinary circumstances. Exactly three weeks later, Republicans mounted a first-in-history filibuster of a highly qualified nominee for Secretary of Defense. Nothing has changed since then. Republicans have continued their record obstruction as if no agreement had ever been reached. Republicans have continued their record obstruction as if no vow had ever been made.


   18 times in the last 36 years

The other side is doubtlessly going to bring up the "it's never been done before" hogwash, so this one should be kept handy for just such an occasion.

The American people are fed up with this kind of obstruction and gridlock. The American people -- Democrats, Republicans and Independents -- are fed up with this kind of obstruction and gridlock. The American people want Washington to work for American families once again.

I am on their side, which is why I propose an important change to the rules of the United States Senate. The present Republican Leader himself said, "The Senate has repeatedly changed its rules as circumstances dictate." He is right. In fact, the Senate has changed its rules 18 times by sustaining or overturning the ruling of the presiding officer in the last 36 years, during the tenures of both Republican and Democratic majorities.


   We'll take our lumps in the future -- it's only fair

Fairness is always an easy-to-understand concept, which is why Harry used it to end on.

The Senate is a living thing. And to survive, it must change. To the average American, adapting the rules to make Congress work again is just common sense. This is not about Democrats versus Republicans. This is about making Washington work -- regardless of who's in the White House or who controls the Senate. To remain relevant and effective as an institution, The Senate must evolve to meet the challenges of a modern era.

I have no doubt my Republican colleague will argue the fault lies with Democrats. I can say from experience that no one's hands are entirely clean on this issue. But today the important distinction is not between Democrats and Republicans. It is between those who are willing to help break the gridlock in Washington and those who defend the status quo.

Today Democrats and Independents are saying enough is enough. This change to the rules regarding presidential nominees will apply equally to both parties. When Republicans are in power, these changes will apply to them as well. That's simple fairness. And it's something both sides should be willing to live with to make Washington work again.


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