Threats of exercising the so-called "nuclear option" turned to action this week when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., led the move to change from 60 to 51 the number of votes necessary to cut off a filibuster over judicial and executive appointees.
By a vote of 52-48, the move effectively stripped the minority party of any power of dissent in the appointment of federal judges, cabinet members or executive appointees to head federal agencies. In this regard, the filibuster will remain on the books in name only, since a simple majority could invoke cloture and nip the effort in the bud.
The vote would not, however, have stopped Sen. Ted Cruz's hours-long homage to Dr. Seuss, in protest of Obamacare. A supermajority of 60 votes is still required to invoke cloture in legislative debates.
We applaud the attempt to overcome one factor contributing to the gridlock that has effectively paralyzed the Senate for the better part of a decade. The kind of gridlock that has allowed agencies like the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to remain leaderless for seven years, under both Democrat and Republican administrations.
The kind of gridlock that drove Maine's veteran, moderate Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe to leave the Senate after openly expressing frustration with the rancorous tone of what passed for discussion and debate in the country's most powerful legislative body.
The kind of gridlock reflected in this startling statistic cited by Reid: half of all the filibusters of judicial and executive nominations — since the founding of the Republic — have occurred during the last four-and-a-half years.
And that, perhaps, is the most telling and most damning of the reasons cited for why the Democrats finally chose to pull the trigger on the nuclear option now.
Today, political savvy is out of favor and intractability is in. We seem to elect those who will stick by their guns at any cost and proclaim those who are interested in compromise are, well, "compromised."
It is, in a way, the tyranny of the minority. We have an out-of-power party that has become so successful at obstructing it literally succeeded in shutting down the federal government. And some say it won't hesitate to do it again.
So, perhaps, the current minority party's intransigence, coupled with its hyper- obstructionist tactics, is why we are at this watershed moment — where, for the first time in the history of the Republic, the respect for the minority voice in the Senate has been compromised.
But, in attempting to break loose from the gridlock, have we taken the first step down a path to something even less desirable?
The answer is an unqualified yes, if you ask former Republican Senate Majority Trent Lott, who is widely credited with coining the phrase "nuclear option," when the GOP came close to dropping the hammer on obstructing Democrats who, in 2003, were filibustering many of George W. Bush's nominees.
"Pretty quickly, I concluded I made a mistake," Lott told CNN Thursday. "It was natural for us to do it because we were mad about them filibustering district and circuit court judges. I was irate about it. But it can come back to bite you and they (the Democrats) are going to regret this."
“If you change the unique precedent and rules, you don’t have a Senate anymore,” Lott told the Wall Street Journal's Law Blog.
The plain-spoken Democratic senator from West Virginia, the late Robert Byrd, apparently would have agreed with him. Back in 2010 Fox News reported that Byrd "expressed vehement opposition to changing the Senate rules on cloture, claiming changing the rules would 'destroy the uniqueness of this institution.' "
"In the hands of a tyrannical majority and leadership, that kind of emasculation of the cloture rule would mean that minority rights would cease to exist in the U.S. Senate," Byrd was quoted as saying.
The trigger has been pulled. And it is unlikely that the decision will be reversed, no matter which party holds the majority of seats in the Senate. For when would the party in power ever be likely to vote for something to increase the power of the minority?
Let's hope we didn't just trade one tyranny for another — for while the minority wields its power by refusing to act, an unrestrained majority, not bound by law to give the minority it's due, might be far more dangerous.
The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.