— Harry Reid is promising to go nuclear in January. The Senate majority leader says he will attempt a controversial procedure on the first day of the new Congress to limit the use of the filibuster by Republicans.
Bravo, you may be thinking. The filibuster has surely been abused in recent years, keeping many a worthy bill from becoming law and dozens of presidential nominees from getting confirmed. Still, Reid and his Democratic colleagues should be careful what they wish for. Sure as the tides roll in and out, Democrats will be in the minority again. Tying Republican hands today means tying their own hands later.
Reid has three changes in mind, all of which seem modest. Instead of requiring 60 votes to begin debating a bill, Reid wants to be able to start with just 51 votes. He wants to be able to send Senate-passed bills to conference with the House using the same simple majority instead of having to round up two-thirds of the Senate (a next-to-impossible 67 votes). And he wants senators to filibuster the old-fashioned way — by standing on the floor, talking nonstop until they give up or a supermajority votes to shut them up.
Senators for decades have sought to reduce the filibuster threat once they're in the majority. In 1975, the Senate lowered to 60 from 67 the number of votes needed to pre-emptively cut off a filibuster through a procedure known as cloture. There are exceptions: Senate rule changes still require 67 votes, as do motions to send bills to a House-Senate conference.
In 2005, when Republicans controlled the Senate, they threatened to push through a rule change to cut off Democratic filibusters of President George W. Bush's judicial nominees. In retaliation, Democrats said they would block all Senate business and essentially shut down the chamber. The situation was defused when a so-called Gang of 14 — seven senators from each party — agreed to end filibusters of judicial nominees except in extraordinary circumstances.