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President Barack Obama’s call for a sweeping overhaul of Congressional ethics and procedure has little chance of becoming reality in an institution adverse to change and built to benefit from its rules.
In his State of the Union address, the one-time Senator proposed that the Senate approve a version of the “nuclear option,” which would end filibusters of presidential nominations. Obama said nominees should get an up-or-down vote after 90 days, regardless of whether they could garner the 60 votes needed to overcome a procedural blockade.
“A simple majority is no longer enough to get anything — even routine business — passed through the Senate,” Obama said. “Neither party has been blameless in these tactics. Now both parties should put an end to it.”
The call to end the filibuster is not new, and executing the change remains improbable.
“It seems so obvious and clear until you get into it, then you find that getting the necessary votes together [to change the rules] and holding them through this process is more difficult,” said Senate
Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), before noting his understanding of why Obama would want to pursue it.
“You turn on C-SPAN for classical music because you’re not getting business out of the Senate,” Durbin added. “Three days or four days at a time on every nomination? Come on, I mean the reality is that doesn’t work for any president.”
But the Illinois Democrat did not fully endorse the 90-day limit as the right solution. He said it was unlikely that Senate Democrats would bring nominees to the floor and force a days-long filibuster standoff with Republicans.
Even Obama himself was opposed to making such a drastic move when he was a Senator in 2005, when then-Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) contemplated forcing a rules change.
“Everyone in this chamber knows that if the majority chooses to end the filibuster, if they choose to change the rules and put an end to democratic debate, then the fighting, the bitterness and the gridlock will only get worse,” Obama said in April 2005. “In the long run, it is not a good result for either party. One day Democrats will be in the majority again, and this rule change will be no fairer to a Republican minority than it is to a Democratic
The inconsistency between then and now was one National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn was quick to point out in the moments following the State of the Union.
“I would not support making the Senate into the House. We have rules that provide for more deliberation and debate,” the Texan said. “Obama was one of those Democrats who filibustered [President] George W. Bush’s nominees, so I found his switch a little surprising.”