The Nuclear Option, Washington's Explosive Topic: QuickTake Q&A


Washington is fixated on a "nuclear option" that has nothing to do with the military but everything to do with warfare. Republicans looking to fill a vacant seat on the U.S. Supreme Court may do away with a decades-long prerogative granted to the minority party. If that should come to pass, U.S. politics could become even more stalemated and angry.

1. What’s the nuclear option?

In the debate roiling the U.S. Congress, it’s shorthand for a power play that Senate Republicans might employ to confirm President Donald Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch. It would mean changing the rules to end a longstanding courtesy extended to the minority party in the 100-seat Senate -- the ability to require a 60-vote supermajority to confirm a Supreme Court justice.

2. Why is it in the news?

Holding 52 seats, Republicans will fall short of the 60-vote supermajority without sufficient support from Democrats. The Republican majority leader, Mitch McConnell, has made clear that Gorsuch will be confirmed one way or the other -- even if that means doing away with one of the Senate traditions that have forced the majority to compromise.

3. What’s the point of the tradition?

One of the unique features of the Senate is that members can hold the floor for unlimited time, stalling progress on a measure they oppose, a weapon known as a filibuster. The mere threat of a filibuster means that most matters, including Supreme Court appointments, need 60 votes in order to proceed.

4. What makes it ‘nuclear’?

If Republicans do away with the 60-vote understanding, they would blow up one of the few restraints that still distinguish the Senate -- often referred to as the world’s greatest deliberative body -- from the more raucous, majority-rule House. Going nuclear would infuriate Democrats, who would likely use Senate rules to gum up the works for Republicans at every turn. Republicans could choose to eliminate the 60-vote threshold not just for presidential nominees but for legislation, fundamentally transforming the way American law gets made.

5. Isn’t a filibuster about talking without stopping?

Historically, yes. The term, from a Dutch word for pirate, "became popular in the 1850s, when it was applied to efforts to hold the Senate floor in order to prevent a vote on a bill," according to the Senate Historical Office. The most famous filibuster might be the fictional one waged by Jimmy Stewart’s character in the 1939 film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Under a Senate rule adopted in 1917, a floor debate could be ended by a vote of two-thirds of senators, a device called cloture. Nowadays, literal filibusters are rare, and cloture votes -- which are held to end debates on all matter of legislation, plus Supreme Court appointments -- require 60 votes.

6. What’s likely to happen?

At least 41 Democrats say they plan to vote against advancing Gorsuch’s nomination, meaning the nuclear option might be the only way for Republicans to seat him. It typically takes 67 votes to change Senate rules, but going “nuclear” means using the majority party’s control to gain a ruling that they can make a change with just a simple majority. It’s not yet clear whether McConnell has the 50 Republican votes needed to change the Senate’s rules. (In case of a 50-50 tie, Republican Vice President Mike Pence would cast the tie-breaking vote.) Some defenders of Senate traditions still hold out some hope of reaching an agreement that preserves the 60-vote understanding.

The Reference Shelf

  • This fight traces back to Barack Obama and Merrick Garland.
  • Gorsuch parried criticism at his confirmation hearing.
  • Trump’s advice: "Go nuclear."
  • Democrats must consider whom else Trump could nominate, writes Bloomberg View columnist Jonathan Bernstein.
  • Gorsuch’s views on contraception are getting distorted, Bloomberg View’s Ramesh Ponnuru writes.
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