Apparently, only Secretary of State John Kerry can avert the threat of nuclear war, so it's too bad he left the Senate. For at least the third time this year, Senate Democrats are threatening to use the "nuclear option," changing the chamber's rules to prevent partisan filibusters of presidential nominees.
We foresaw this last week, not that it took much foresight. In May, with several Obama appointees blocked by Republican filibusters, the Democrats threatened to use their majority — big enough to change the rules but not big enough to overrule the blockades — to make filibusters of appointees an impossibility. This had already been dubbed the "nuclear option" when the Republicans proposed doing it in 2005; by now, the appelation has lost a bit of its sting. The suggestion built into the term is that the rule change — in the Democrats' case, forbidding filibusters of certain nominations — is such a blow to the Senate's traditions that it's like blowing the whole thing up. This, as we've noted before, is melodramatic.
At New York, Jonathan Chait gets at why this latest nuclear option threat is different than those in the past on both sides. At the heart of the debate, as it was in May, are appointees to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, a court that is given jurisdiction over a broad swath of federal legislation. Chait quotes Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, who argued that the president, by nominating judges to open seats on the court, was seeking to shift the balance toward the Democrats. Which is of course correct.
Of course, every single judicial appointment is intended to alter the ideological balance of that court. Grassley is, therefore, asserting a blanket right to blockade judicial nominees. His principle could be extended to prevent Obama, or any president, from filling any judicial vacancy at all.
Chait goes on to point out that the argument is fundamentally hypocritical. No one thinks that Grassley's mandate that no court should ever have more Democrats than Republicans also means that he would keep a court from having more Republicans than Democrats. Instances of that hypocrisy aren't hard to find; on Friday morning, the liberal site ThinkProgress pointed out exactly such a flip-flop from Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. Alexander was among those filibustering one of Obama's D.C. Circuit Court nominees, Patricia Millett. In 2005, he had a different view of the practice, when the Democrats were the ones blocking nominees: "I would never filibuster any President’s judicial nominee, period. I might vote against them, but I will always see they came to a vote." Whether or not Alexander's fingers were crossed when he said that is lost to history.
Chait's larger, unstated point is that the imaginary Senate comity that the nuclear option would obliterate is already laying in ruins. The excessive use of the filibuster — as we've pointed out time and again — has already crippled the Senate's ability to do much of anything. The abuse of the informal filibuster rule, changes to which are now described in apocalyptic terms, has alrady done its damage. The body only looks functional at this point because the House is an even more desolate wasteland.
So there's probably not much point in calling the Secreatary of State back from Geneva, having vanquished the threat of annihilation posed by the Iranians, in hopes he could similary broker peace on Capitol Hill. He was there when the Senate crumbled. Perhaps that memory, of having lived through the nuclear explosion that upended the Senate's legendary and largely imaginary good-naturedness, is what makes Kerry so eager to avoid another nuclear terror.