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EDITORIAL: Nuclear warfare in the Senate

Changing filibuster rules likely to ‘poison the atmosphere’ for a long time

- - Sunday, November 24, 2013

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid leaped beyond the point of no return on Thursday. Majority leaders in the past toyed with the idea of stripping the minority party of the filibuster, but they always pulled back when a cooler head prevailed. Not the senator from Las Vegas, who detonated the "nuclear option" and ended hope of collegiality returning to Capitol Hill for a very long time.

The maneuver clears the way for Democrats to force through the most radical of President Obama's executive and judicial nominees, at the price of Senate tradition and the likelihood of the legislative process moving forward. The most prominent of Democrats agreed with this assessment in 2005, when majority Republicans threatened to drop the bomb on Democrats.

"If the right of free and open debate is taken away from the minority party and the millions of Americans who ask us to be their voice," the young Sen. Barack Obama warned darkly at that not-so-distant time, "I fear the already poisoned atmosphere in Washington will be poisoned to the point where no one will be able to agree on anything."

Joe Biden, then a senator from Delaware, dropped to his knees in prayer. "I pray to God," he said, though it was not clear whether he was addressing his plea to the almighty or merely his Republican colleagues, "that when the Democrats take back control we don't make the kind of naked power grab you are doing." Mr. Reid, then a mere minority leader unable to go nuclear, went poetic. "The filibuster is far from a procedural gimmick," he said. "It's part of the fabric of this institution we call the Senate." On Thursday, no longer sore afraid, he rent the fabric.

The Founding Fathers envisioned the Senate as a "cooling saucer" for heated ideological issues, not as ground zero for scorching the earth. Mr. Reid has no patience with cool heads. He wants to put three extremist judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit while he can. These nominations have been blocked for four weeks by Republican senators. Having these radical left-wing judges on the bench is key to winning Mr. Obama's extremist agenda. The president himself said so at a Texas party fundraiser earlier this month, where he referred to rulings "that ultimately are going to be made about women's reproductive health [and] about how we treat our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters."

Mr. Obama and Mr. Reid share the "my way, or the highway" strategy of refusing to negotiate with the minority party. Mr. Obama shut down the government rather than agree to a temporary delay of his Obamacare, which Mr. Reid guided through the Senate without a single Republican vote.

Mr. Reid's partisanship, now on full display, spells trouble for a crucial handful of red-state Senate Democrats, all but two of whom — Mark L. Pryor of Arkansas and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia — supported the nuclear option. Mr. Pryor, who faces a difficult re-election campaign, moved swiftly to the side of the angels at home. "Today's use of the 'nuclear option' could permanently damage the Senate and have negative ramifications for the American people," he said.

Mr. Reid may lack the skill or cool judgment for Senate leadership, but his prospective successors, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois or Chuck Schumer of New York, promise to be no better. The president and the majority leader talk a lot about civility and bipartisanship, but in the end, they practice abuse of those who disagree with them. Voters must remember this on judgment day next November.