On November 21, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) made history when he motioned for an overhaul of the filibuster, a parliamentary tool that has been associated with dysfunction in recent years. This occurred after a cloture motion (a motion to end debate) failed for the second time to appoint Patricia Millet to fill a vacancy on the D.C. Circuit Court, a stepping stone for the U.S. Supreme Court. Throughout history, the majority caucus has threatened to change the filibuster rule but has never followed through.
Senate Democrats will now be able to fill the vacant seats of the federal government (i.e. federal judgeships, lower-level cabinet positions, etc.) without the threat of a minority filibuster. The decision by the majority to overhaul the rules governing filibusters sets a precedent for what lengths they are willing to go in order to speed up the stagnant pace of the chamber. Senate Republicans lost their number-one parliamentary maneuver and there will likely be a flood of appointments pushed through the agenda following the holiday recess. However, Senate Republicans still have a significant chip they can play – and they likely will.
A cloture vote does not immediately prevent additional debate nor does it immediately call for a vote. Instead, the minority can continue its filibuster for up to 30 hours following the cloture vote. The Senate has been sitting on hundreds of executive appointments, already vetted by the Senate Judiciary Committee, waiting action on the floor. Senate Republicans will have the opportunity to hold up to 30 hours of debate for each appointee, meaning that the Senate could be tied up for more than a year’s worth of floor time.
In the weeks and months ahead, Congress will be faced with another debate over the federal budget and raising the debt ceiling. If Congress were to be distracted by prolonged discussions over executive appointments, there could be a second government shutdown in less than a year. If they elect to negotiate a truce on the fiscal chaos, the executive appointments will continue to pile up.
The filibuster has been a symbol of dysfunction throughout recent memory. However, it’s important to remember that the filibuster is only one tactic in an institution that drives its own dysfunction.
Senator Reid and Senate Democrats detonated what is known as the “nuclear option” to reform the filibuster. For Democratic supporters, the move was the saving grace for a dysfunctional government. President Obama and Congressional Democrats will be able to move appointments without the blockade that has become customary from Republicans. However, removing the supermajority necessary to end a filibuster may have unforeseen fallout in the chamber and could lead to further dysfunction.