How Schumer turned against a filibuster he once tried to save
On Thursday afternoon, Senate Democrats ended the Senate Republicans' ability to filibuster many of the president's judicial and cabinet nominations.
And then, Chuck Schumer mourned.
"We all know that today is a sad day," Schumer told reporters in Washington, shortly after the Senate, following years of threats, exercised the so-called "nuclear option" to restrict the use of the chamber's storied filibuster.
After years of threats, triggered by increasingly regular use of the tactic by Republicans, the Democratic leadership finally amended the chamber's rules to keep the minority party from bringing the president's appointment process to a halt.
Schumer, who helped install his party in the majority over the course of two highly successful cycles as head of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, had actually been among the more reluctant Democratic senators when it came to overhauling the filibuster rules. In fact, after 15 years in the Senate, Schumer seemed to have become something of an institutionalist, willing to use the nuclear threat as a trump card to exact short term deals that eventually got Democrats some incremental gains, without ever wanting to follow through.
This was a change: Schumer had once pushed the envelope of filibuster-use, when he was a minority-party senator fighting resisting George W. Bush's judicial picks, by stating that substantive disagreement with judicial philosophy was a legitimate grounds for blocking.
In 2003, after Democrats lost control of the Senate, Schumer led a high-profile fight against Bush's nomination of Charles Pickering, a conservative Mississippi judge, to a federal appeals court, after urging Democrats to make the fight against ideological judges part of the party's new appeals to average voters. Bush eventually withdrew Pickering's nomination.
But in recent years, Schumer had tried to ease Republican obstructionism, without overhauling the Senate rules.
Last December, he negotiated a compromise with Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander to handle the complicated amendment process to an aid package for Hurricane Sandy victims, saying he hoped it could be a model for easing the chamber's gridlock, without going nuclear.
"I hope this is sort of a model for how the Senate can work in the future," Schumer said at the time, adding, "Senator Alexander and I have been involved in trying to avoid the nuclear option and we regarded this as a pretty good test."
A month later, when the incoming Senate established its rules for the new Congress, party leaders negotiated a deal to keep the current rules largely in place.
When those rules were imperiled again in July, as Republicans blocked a number of President Obama's appointments, Schumer had become a point-person within the Democratic leadership for avoiding the changes, and he eventually hammered out a deal with Sen. John McCain to approve the nominees without any drastic changes.
Schumer said then that McCain had "initiated these calls because he was so eager to avoid having a blow-up on the rules. I said to him, 'Look, I want to avoid a blow-up on the rules too.'"
But even Schumer couldn't abide the Republicans' unwillingness to approve any new nominees to the D.C. circuit court, leaving three vacancies, in order to preserve an even partisan split among the current appointees.
On Thursday afternoon, Schumer voted along with 51 other members of his party to kill the filibuster for federal judges and certain other presidential appointments.
"Things should never have gotten to that point," Schumer said after the vote. "We've gotten here by an extreme group that has waged a successful war on government."
Schumer framed the move as a reaction to the Tea Party's influence on the Republican Party, and the resulting public disapproval of the party's increasingly militant confrontational tactics.
"The public is asking—is begging—us to act," Schumer said. "We're at nine-percent approval because the rules given an advantage to those who want to prevent the Senate from achieving anything."
The concern for Democrats is that Republicans will wield the same power if, or when, they regain control of the Senate. When majority leader Harry Reid was asked about those fears, Schumer interrupted to answer the question.
"We much prefer the risk of up or down votes and majority rule than the risk of continued total obstructionism," he said. "That's the bottom line, no matter who's in power."
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