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Jul 11 2013

Hatch: Use of Nuclear Option to Change Senate Rules "Will Cause Long-Term Damage to the Senate and to the System of Government"

Utah Senator Blasts Senate Democrats for Attempt to Silence Minority, Stifle Debate

In a speech on the Senate floor today U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), current member and former Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, blasted Senate Democrats for threatening to use the so-called “nuclear option” to change Senate rules and take away the rights of the minority. The nuclear option would end the right to filibuster, and each executive nomination would only need a simple majority to be confirmed, setting a dangerous precedent.

“Using the rules to their advantage is not enough for this majority.  Gaining even more power through those new orders and rules is not enough.  Now the majority threatens to use a parliamentary maneuver to weaken or abolish the right to debate itself.  But as I said, the Senate’s rules reflect the Senate’s role,” Hatch said in his remarks. “Changing those rules, especially in the way the majority is talking about, means changing the Senate’s role in our system of government.  A few partisan victories simply cannot be enough to justify that.”

Hatch’s full remarks as are below:

Last month, I spoke here about the confirmation process and how the majority was committing filibuster fraud. 

The leaders on the other side including the Majority Leader and Majority Whip voted for judicial filibusters more than 20 times by this point in the previous administration.  And they succeeded – there were five times as many judicial filibusters at this point during the Bush administration as there have been today. 

Looking at executive branch nominations, those same Democratic leaders voted to filibuster President Bush’s nominees to be Assistant Secretary of Defense and EPA Administrator, and twice voted to filibuster his nominee to be United Nations Ambassador.  They must have thought very differently then about whether the President deserves his team.  Their actions then spoke more loudly than their words do today about whether they think all nominees really do deserve an up or down vote.

The Senate recently confirmed the Directors of OMB and the CIA, the U.S. Trade Representative, and the Secretaries of Energy, Interior, Treasury, State, Transportation, and Commerce this year by a collective vote of 816-61.  The Congressional Research Service says that the Senate is considering President Obama’s executive nominees faster than during President Bush’s second term. 

But none of that is good enough for this majority.  They not only want more, but it appears they are willing to get it by any means necessary.  According to media reports, the Majority Leader is being pushed by political interests to use a parliamentary gimmick to limit or abolish filibusters.  In other words, his political base – especially Big Labor – wants him to put short-term partisan politics ahead of the integrity and tradition of the Senate itself.  If simply saying that is not enough to show how dangerous it is, we are in more trouble than I thought.

Thomas Jefferson called the Capitol the first temple to the sovereignty of the American people.  The people established our Constitution with its separation of powers.  They designed the legislative branch with an action-oriented House and a deliberation-oriented Senate.  We call ours a system of government because it includes all of these parts, designed to be different and yet to work together.

Many people today bemoan the division and conflict in Congress, the partisanship, and on and on.  Yes, there will be conflict over the important issues facing our country.  Men and women of different perspectives, views, and ideologies serve in Congress.  But I always thought we should be of one mind about the long-term integrity of the system and of our institutions.

For more than two centuries, the Senate has been designed to play its own particular part in the legislative process.  Form follows function, they say, and so our rules reflect our role.  For more than two centuries, the minority has had some basic rights in this body, including the right to debate.  That right has always annoyed the majority and empowered the minority.  I know that from experience, as I have been among the annoyed just as today I am among the empowered.  And the majority knows it too.  A decade ago, when they were in the minority, they began for the time using that right to debate to defeat judicial nominees who otherwise would be confirmed.

And now, back in the majority, they want to ban the very tools they found so useful just a few years ago.  Now that the Majority Leader is done using the opportunity for extended debate, he wants to make sure no one else can use it.  Why?  For one simple reason – because they want their way every time.   And if they can’t get it the old fashioned way, by persuading their colleagues and the American people, then they will simply rig the rules.  This short-term power grab, however, will cause long-term damage to the Senate and to the system of government of which it is such a vital part.

A little dose of history provides a big dose of clarity to this debate.  For more than a century, the right to keep debate going belonged to each individual Senator.  There was no rule at all for ending debate.  A single Senator could prevent bills from passing by preventing debate from ending.  But we have had a rule for ending debate for nearly a century and today it is easier to end debate than at any time since the turn of the 19th century.  Not the 20th century, the 19th century. 

Not only that, but the majority is using that rule more effectively today to prevent filibusters than in the past.  It’s all there in the public record.  When we vote to end debate, we prevent a filibuster.  And a higher percentage of votes to end debate have succeeded in recent Congresses than in the past.

To top it off, just a few months ago, the Senate overwhelmingly adopted two new standing orders and two new standing rules giving the majority even more power in considering nominations and legislation.

Using the rules to their advantage is not enough for this majority.  Gaining even more power through those new orders and rules is not enough.  Now the majority threatens to use a parliamentary maneuver to weaken or abolish the right to debate itself.  But as I said, the Senate’s rules reflect the Senate’s role.  Changing those rules, especially in the way the majority is talking about, means changing the Senate’s role in our system of government.  A few partisan victories simply cannot be enough to justify that.

The Minority Leader has faithfully reminded us of the Majority Leader’s past promises not to change Senate rules or procedures except through the process provided for in the rules.  On January 27, 2011, the Majority Leader said: “I will oppose any effort in this Congress or the next to change the Senate’s rules other than through the regular order.”  My question is this: when the Majority said I will oppose, did he really mean I will lead?

Mr. President, the integrity of this institution and the system of which it is a part should matter more than the politics of the moment.  If our commitment to this institution and to keeping our word no longer matter, we will be breaking the trust of the American people and failing in our duty to them.  That must not happen.