Filibuster-busting threatens mutual assured destruction

Harry Reid’s partial demolition of the filibuster is a big, risky throw of the dice. We’ll soon find out whether it improves the way the Senate does business – or kills what remains of its tradition of cross-party collaboration.

The Senate majority leader didn’t totally destroy the hallowed tradition of letting as few as 41 senators thwart the will of as many as 59. His version of the “nuclear option” dispenses with that privilege only for presidential appointments to executive offices and lower federal courts.

So far, this is more an atomic bomb than a hydrogen bomb. Nominations to the Supreme Court will notably still require 60 votes to reach a floor vote. So will legislation. Those are two crucial exceptions that Reid, for whatever reason, carved out of his experiment.

The busting of the filibuster has been called the nuclear option for good reason. No one has done it before because both parties feared mutual assured destruction.

Now that the Democratic Senate majority has partially stripped minority Republicans of the right to filibuster, it’s only a matter of time before Democrats find themselves stripped of the same right in the face of a newly elected Republican majority.

Reid decided that today’s GOP obstructionism was just too much to bear, worse than his own party’s eventual disadvantage.

It’s easy to see why. Senate Republicans in recent years have invoked the filibuster on an unprecedented scale, frequently and unreasonably denying Barack Obama the presidential prerogative of appointing qualified nominees to federal courts.

Democrats have filibustered Republican nominees in the past, but less often and usually with at least lip service to a credible cause. As part of the general congressional trend toward scorched earth partisanship, Republican senators have started killing nominees just because Obama did the nominating.

For Reid, their recent sabotage of three qualified candidates for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit was the straw that broke the camel’s back. They were decidedly liberal, but that’s the kind of nominee you get when the nation elects a Democratic president. Republican presidents put conservatives on the bench. In a democracy, elections have consequences.

The demise of the filibuster – and the bipartisan accord behind it – is not cause for celebration. The tactic may be undemocratic, but it also often required the majority party to persuade a few members of the minority to join the vote.

It’s been part of the reason the Senate has seen less of the shrill, savage hyper-partisanship that poisons politics in the House. It tended to force consideration of contrary views. Sometimes it produced better decisions. The national furor over Obamacare – which passed without a single Republican vote – is a cautionary tale.

The Senate might – who knows? – keep the venom and ruthlessness down even without the filibuster. Some unforeseeable dynamic might even improve things. But if Reid’s action helps to institutionalize House-style warfare in the Senate, his reign as majority leader won’t be remembered kindly.