Washington Wednesday – Will Democrats deploy the nuclear option?

NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Wednesday the 24th of March, 2021. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up: the push to bust the filibuster. 

Last week, President Biden said he supports changing that Senate rule.

The filibuster is a parliamentary procedure that actor Jimmy Stewart helped make famous in his 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Stewart played a young senator who talked for nearly 24 hours straight to hold off a vote on a corrupt public-works bill.

AUDIO: Yes, and a man even powerful enough to control congressmen, and I saw three of them in his room the day I went up to see him. —Senator, yield!— No sir, I will not yield!

EICHER: And that’s the filibuster in a nutshell—extending debate in order to delay or block a vote. It dates back to the 1800s, but recently it’s become a much more commonly used tactic. 

Anyone in the chamber can debate a bill as long as he wants to debate it until—and here’s another term to learn—until cloture. That is, until three-fifths of the Senate—that would be 60 senators—vote to end debate.

The current Senate is 50-50 with Vice President Kamala Harris available to break ties, so slight edge to the Democrats. But they don’t have the 60 votes needed to overcome filibusters.

REICHARD: Back in 2013 came the nuclear option, so-called. Democrat Harry Reid was Senate Majority Leader at the time and he nuked the filibuster. 

REID: The change we propose today would ensure executive and judicial nominations an up or down vote on nominations.

So not a complete annihilation of the filibuster, despite the apocalyptic term. It eliminated the filibuster in these narrow cases: for executive nominees and federal judges, allowing Democrats to confirm President Obama’s nominees with just 51 votes.

But maybe the term “nuclear option” fits after all, because it did blow up a precedent that Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned about at the time. McConnell said the Democrats would rue the day.

MCCONNELL: Say to my friends on the other side of the aisle, you’ll regret this, and you may regret it a lot sooner than you think.

EICHER: Five years later, Republicans control the Senate and the White House, and who is majority leader—Mitch McConnnell. He deployed the predicted nuclear option to end the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees.

Today, President Biden’s party in control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, some Democrats want to do away with the filibuster entirely. That would allow them to pass any legislation with a simple one-vote majority.

REICHARD: Joining us now is a man who knows all this history very, very well. He represented Wyoming in the U.S. Senate for nearly two decades, retired Republican Senator Alan Simpson.

Senator, thanks for joining us this morning!

ALAN SIMPSON, GUEST: It’s a great pleasure. You bet. 

REICHARD: President Biden said last week that he supports changing the Senate rules back to the “talking filibuster” — the Jimmy Stewart way, where any Senator who wants to filibuster has to hold the floor and speak the entire time. I take that to mean a senator does not have to use that method to filibuster? What is the rule right now? 

SIMPSON: Well, that’s the rule but the threat of a filibuster has ruined the rule. In other words, if a guy says I’m going to filibuster that, then everybody chills and faints and falls out of the gallery and then they say, “Oh, my Lord, they’re going to do that.” But it used to be that the filibuster was a talking filibuster. You couldn’t relinquish the floor. Strom Thurman went, I think, 24 hours without going to the bathroom, which is really quite an extraordinary thing in and of itself. But don’t miss what’s happening here. The Senate is not the House. In the House you can just trample the minority. You can just stomp on their heads. That’s why a lot of people left the House. And they all ran for the Senate. And when they came to the Senate, the protection of the Senate is for the minority. Not the minority party, the minority of an issue. And the sole purpose of the filibuster is to protect the minority on an issue. It has no other function. There’s plenty of people holding on this one that are not going to get rid of the filibuster. And they’re Democrats and Republicans alike because they know the democracy in the Senate cannot succeed without this protection of a minority on an issue.

REICHARD: And how did it work during your time in the Senate? 

SIMPSON: Well, it worked because some on the other side of the aisle would say, “I’m going to filibuster,” and you’d say, well, there it comes. Gotta do 60 votes. And so when I was the acting leader of the Senate, Bob Dole ran for president of the United States and for several weeks I was the leader. And I  insisted that we go to the actual filibuster. They brought in the cots. They brought in their coffee and their little lunch boxes and we had a filibuster and Byrd was on the other side. Wonderful, constitutional authority, Democrat. And here I was taking over for Dole and we got into parliamentary exhaustion and I finally got a hold of my own parliamentarian and I said I want a ruling here that what we’re doing is the proper thing. And Byrd came to me and said, well, this is unheard of. I said, might be unheard of, but that’s what I’m going to do. This is what the filibuster was intended to do. And he lost two or three votes on it and he came to me and I said to him, “Robert, I would like to have you save face in this situation. You cannot win and my people are going to give up the floor only to other people on their side.” And he said, “Let me sit down with you.” And we did and we worked it out procedurally how we could get through this to protect the minority on that issue. It’s not about Republicans and Democrats, it’s about saving the soul of the Senate.

REICHARD: If President Biden’s proposal is adopted, what difference will that have? Would that open the floodgates for Democratic legislation or could multiple senators band together to keep a talking filibuster going? 

SIMPSON: I have no idea what it will open, but I’ll tell you what it will close. And that is the ability of one or two people to say I’m going to filibuster. And then everybody goes into shock knowing you’re going to get 60 votes. Don’t forget, Harry Reid gave up a very key situation, which enabled the last administration to put people on the Supreme Court.When my father was in the Senate it was two-thirds. Then they chiseled it down to 70 and then 60. You keep shriveling it and then there won’t be a Senate. That’s the way it works. It’s a key to life in the Senate. And that’s the way it should work.

REICHARD: Senator, many Democrats want to end the filibuster altogether. But there are a few more moderate Democrats who are standing in the way of that. You served in the Senate from 1979 to 1997. When you served in the Senate, was there ever a serious push by either party to use the nuclear option and end the filibuster in part or in whole? 

SIMPSON: Oh, yes, it was talked about. But then there’s always going to be a core of thoughtful people who are more American than Democrat or Republican. There’s a strange group in there of the 100 of us who thought that our first obligation was to the United States, not to the Democrat party or to the Republican party. And they were a core group. We had five on our side. They had five or six on their side. And those people, because of their consciousness of the essence  of the Senate, would get together and say, “Never have the nuclear option.” At some point there is always going to be a core group of Democrats and Republicans who have labeled themselves as interested in the United States of America.

REICHARD: Senator, a question not about the filibuster, necessarily, how do you think the U.S. Senate has changed since you were there? 

SIMPSON: We respected each other. You didn’t mention a name like Kennedy and then all the Republicans would get up and say, “I hate Kennedy.” You didn’t mention Byrd and someone would say, “I hate Byrd.” There was no hatred. If Simpson was on the floor, they’d say, well, you know, Simpson’s as goofy as a peach orchard borrower, but I don’t hate him. And now I can tell you there is intense hatred. And if you want to put the venom back in the fangs of the rattler, take away the filibuster. 

REICHARD: Senator Alan Simpson represented Wyoming in the U.S. Senate for nearly two decades. Sir, an honor to speak to you today. Thank you. 

SIMPSON: It was a treat. It was lovely. Thank you.

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon) The U.S. Capitol building is shown after sunset Thursday, March 4, 2021, in Washington. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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