Nuclear Warfare

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As it becomes increasingly clear that congressional Democrats are going to do what they should have done all along, and try to advance health care in part through the budget reconciliation process, the GOP is naturally freaking out. They’re deeming the whole thing unnecessary and have even taken to calling reconciliation the “nuclear option.” This is absurd. Reconciliation is not the normal way of passing bills, but its use is routine—since 1980 most years have seen at least one reconciliation bill adopted. And as Joshua Tucker observers, it’s usually been used by Republicans. During the most recent run of GOP congressional majorities we got two reconciliation bills in the 104th congress, one in the 105th, two in the 106th, and one in the 107th.

The nuclear talking point is even sillier, since you only need to go back to the dark days of 2005 to see this term used to mean something else. The Bush-era GOP Senate majority, which was accustomed to using reconciliation for priority measures, was annoyed that democrats were filibustering circuit court nominees. Consequently, right-wing organizations came up with the idea of having Dick Cheney rule such filibusters unconstitutional, and then having 50 Republican Senators support his ruling. The devisers of this plan called it “the nuclear option.” Then Democratic opponents of this plan also took to calling it “the nuclear option” at which point proponents of the nuclear option decided they wanted to change the name and started calling it “the constitutional option.” At the time, I said Democrats should try to strike a bargain where both parties would agree to abolish all filibusters and return the Senate to majority rule. Instead, basically the reverse deal was struck—Democrats let the judges in question be confirmed, but the filibuster lived to fight another day.

At this point in time, however, absolutely nobody suggested that there was anything illegitimate about reconciliation or that it was somehow the same as the nuclear option. That said, I’d have no problem with actually “going nuclear” and getting rid of the filibuster altogether. It only takes 50 votes and some gritty determination.