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Nuclear Option?! What Really Happened On The Senate Floor, And Why It Matters

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After going back and forth for a couple rounds, detailed here and here, everything seemed to be set in stone. McConnell wouldn't get his vote on Obama's jobs bill directly, but he would use his prerogatives under the Senate rule to force a vote on what's known as a "motion to suspend the rules" -- an arcane tactic that requires a two-thirds vote for passage, and was destined to fail. McConnell, though, wanted this procedural vote to serve as a proxy for Obama's jobs bill. If it failed, and if Democrats voted against it, Republicans could say Obama's jobs bill went down with bipartisan support -- a talking point they could use for months.

McConnell had the Senate rules on his side. His motion, however mischievous, was ruled in order. The stage was set for a vote. That's when Reid whipped out an ace he's had up his sleeve since he became majority leader -- one that his liberal critics wish he'd used two years ago to end the filibuster and ram the Democratic agenda through the Senate without having to contend with frustrating supermajority requirements. Reid and 50 of his Democrats simply voted to overrule the parliamentarian's decision that McConnell's motion was in order. Presto, McConnell's motion could not come to a vote, and Reid had avoided a political embarrassment -- and eliminated a very small minority right in the Senate.

But this wasn't just about checkmating McConnell. As he said in a statement late Thursday, "The Senate must have the ability to move forward on legislation that has broad bipartisan support. A small minority of senators cannot be allowed to bring bipartisan legislation, like a bill to end China's job-killing, underhanded currency manipulation, to a grinding halt when 14 million Americans are out of work."

To wit, after legislation has overcome a filibuster, only a very narrow set of germane amendments can come up for votes -- unless the rules are suspended. Since Obama's jobs bill is not germane to Chinese currency legislation, it was out of order, and suspending the rules was McConnell's only way to force the issue. This thin reed of minority power has been ripped from its root, because of Reid's play Thursday night.

Still, what Reid did operates on the same principle as the "nuclear option." It is tactically the same maneuver Republicans threatened to pull in 2005 when they pushed to end judicial filibusters. But the issue at stake is much, much narrower -- it ends a ploy that hasn't been pulled successfully in decades, except to delay proceedings on the Senate floor and score political points.

And this is where timing becomes important. Reid has wiped out an extremely small minority right (technically, the right to force a vote on a motion to suspend the rules, after cloture has been invoked on a bill, to consider a non-germane amendment). But he's done so at the nadir of Democratic power with Republicans strongly positioned to assume the majority in 2012. Republicans are furious about it. And now that Reid's done something that hasn't been done in at least 30 years -- and may be unprecedented -- a narrow GOP majority in 2013 could use it as cover to affect much broader changes to the Senate rules. Including, if they want, eliminating the filibuster.

If Republicans win the Senate in 2012, we all may be revisiting this odd procedural maneuver, but with much, much more at stake.

About The Author

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Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at brian@talkingpointsmemo.com

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