Harry Reid on the Senate, the Supreme Court, and a Time for Major ChangeBreaking News
tags: filibuster, Senate, Democratic Party, Harry Reid
The decision by Senate Republicans to jam through the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett in the final days before the election—when they refused even to hold hearings on the nomination of Merrick Garland, in 2016—has brought the dysfunction and the hypocrisy of the Senate to wide public notice. A defense that Republicans have offered Democrats is: you started it. Specifically, they assert that the breakdown began with a decision, in 2013, by then Majority Leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, to lead the effort to abolish the filibuster for lower-court judges and other Presidential nominees. As President Donald Trump retweeted earlier this month, repeating a message from Senator Lindsey Graham, “Harry Reid & Chuck Schumer changed Senate rules to try and stack the courts for Obama. Now it’s coming back to haunt them as I predicted.”
Reid, who retired from the Senate in 2016, has no regrets. For the past two and a half years, he’s been battling pancreatic cancer, at his home in Las Vegas. In a recent conversation, Reid said that he has been keeping the disease at bay. Mostly, though, he wanted to talk about the Senate, the election, and Donald Trump. “I want to get this off my chest,” Reid told me. “Trump’s been saying what’s happened to the Senate is all my fault, because of what we did in 2013. But you have to remember what was going on at the time. Obama was President. We had the majority, but we didn’t have enough to break filibusters. And the Republicans were filibustering everything. For the first time in history, they filibustered the nomination of a Secretary of Defense, and let’s keep in mind that it was Chuck Hagel, a Republican. They filibustered all the sub-Cabinet positions, all of his judges. The government couldn’t function. So we changed the rule, and I’m glad we did.”
Reid has a point, especially about judges. Obama had managed to fill two Supreme Court seats in his first term, but by the time he was reëlected Republican filibusters had brought the confirmation of judges to a near-total stop. Specifically, in 2013, Obama had three pending nominations for the D.C. Circuit, widely known as the second-most important court in the nation, and Mitch McConnell, then the Minority Leader, was staging filibusters against them all. In response, Reid and his Democratic colleagues changed the rule, so that only a simple majority, instead of sixty votes, was required to close debate on judges and Presidential appointees. The three D.C. Circuit nominees were confirmed, as were several dozen other judges before the midterm elections of 2014, when Republicans gained a majority in the Senate. At that point, McConnell almost completely shut down the confirmation of Obama’s judges. “If we hadn’t acted, Obama would have accomplished nothing,” Reid said. “We had no choice—zero.”
Since Reid left the Senate, the gridlock there has only intensified. McConnell has used Reid’s change in the rules to push through all of Trump’s lower-court judicial nominations. (If Reid hadn’t changed the rule when Obama was President, McConnell would have done so under Trump—and Obama would have had virtually no judges confirmed.) In order to push through Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court, McConnell led an effort to overturn the right to use filibusters on nominations to the high court. (This is why Republicans need only a simple majority—that is, fifty of their fifty-three members—to confirm Barrett. Vice-President Mike Pence would break any tied votes, although his right to do so under the Constitution is not entirely clear.)
“I think the time has come for the filibuster to go, and it’s going to go. It’s not a question of whether but when,” Reid told me. “There is no legislation passed. There are no amendments voted on. You can’t have a legislature that requires sixty per cent. It’s outlived its usefulness.” But that’s not the only structural reform that Reid wants to see passed.
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