Senate Holds, Filibusters, and the “Nuclear” Option

Last week, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) placed a “hold” on all of the Obama Administration nominations that are pending before the Senate, thereby preventing a vote on their confirmation.  There are said to be at least 70 such nominations awaiting Senate action, including those of several senior defense and intelligence officials.  Sen. Shelby, a man of flexible principles who has served as both a Democrat and a Republican, reportedly adopted the blanket holds in an attempt to compel the Administration to award certain defense contracts to his home state of Alabama.

Shelby’s action is “outlandish,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) on the Senate floor last Thursday.  But that was as far as he was prepared to go, or perhaps farther than he intended to go.  Striking a tactical retreat, he immediately added: “I can’t imagine this is the right thing to do.”

The new obstructionism has the potential to cripple the U.S. government, warned Paul Krugman today in the New York Times, and to do so in a particularly pointless and humiliating way:  “Instead of re-enacting the decline and fall of Rome, we’re re-enacting the dissolution of 18th-century Poland,” he wrote.

Confronted with rampant irresponsibility and procedural abuse, the White House and the Majority party are not — or should not be — helpless to respond.  In theory, their options include recess appointments to circumvent the Senate confirmation process, and the so-called “nuclear” option to alter existing Senate procedures.  These alternatives, along with related background, have been usefully described in a series of reports from the Congressional Research Service (all pdf).

“Recess Appointments: Frequently Asked Questions,” updated March 12, 2008.

“‘Entrenchment’ of Senate Procedure and the ‘Nuclear Option’ for Change: Possible Proceedings and Their Implications,” March 28, 2005.

“Cloture Attempts on Nominations,” March 30, 2009.

“‘Holds’ in the Senate,” May 19, 2008.

“Senate Policy on ‘Holds’: Action in the 110th Congress,” March 14, 2008.

“Filibusters and Cloture in the Senate,” March 28, 2003.

“Minority Rights and Senate Procedures,” August 22, 2005.

Update: Late Monday night, Sen. Shelby released most of his holds on pending nominees.

No Responses to “Senate Holds, Filibusters, and the “Nuclear” Option”

  1. George Smith February 8, 2010 at 5:18 PM #

    Reasonable minds think alike.

    Wish I’d seen the “I can’t imagine this is the right thing to do” quote earlier. Surely it is one for permanent resident in the Fool’s Hall of Fame.

  2. Ivan Durakov February 8, 2010 at 7:32 PM #

    As a man sows, thus shall he reap, including collectively.

    The Demshevik minority used these very techniques when the tables were turned during the Bush administrations.

    If Harry Reid finds the actions outlandish, I find the actions necessary to ensure the legislature follows the will of those who voted for them, and that will is decidedly opposed to Reid, Pelosi, and Obama at the moment. We will all once again have the opportunity to address the “problem” at the ballot box this year.

  3. Steven Aftergood February 8, 2010 at 7:47 PM #

    You are misinformed. Democrats did not place a hold on all of President Bush’s nominations, as Senator Shelby has done. That never happened. Republicans like Sen. Shelby are not advancing a constructive policy agenda in opposition to Obama, but are simply exploiting Senate procedures to extort money for their own parochial interests. It’s the opposite of what most Americans voted for.

  4. Robert Dobbs February 9, 2010 at 1:57 AM #

    Americans should have to find Afghanistan on a map before being allowed to vote.

  5. Ivan Durakov February 10, 2010 at 12:27 AM #

    I am well informed. Constructive is in the eye of the beholder. A dead halt to the wide ploys of the Demshevik majority for their duration is the most constructive act the minority can pull off on behalf of the American public if it prevents further bleedout of wealth from the taxpaying middle class to the money interests favored by that majority. It isn’t the Republicrats generating trillion dollar deficits with out of control spending at the moment. If the Republicrats are guilty of extortion, then punish them (we certainly will within our own party before it all plays out), but you seem to give your own partisan lords a two-blind-eye pass on an order-of-magnitude greater offense. That is unfortunate, as it lessens the credibility of a damn good newsletter and blog.

  6. Herman Schmit February 10, 2010 at 6:18 PM #


    Fact: Until 1970, no session of Congress had more than ten votes on cloture to end a filibuster. Until 2007, the record was 58. The last session had a new record of 112.

    Nice rant about the “most constructive act.” I won’t counter your Limbaugh-pablum; we can do the back-and-forth on this all day. That we disagree is the point.

    But while we disagree on the direction this country should go, we have to allow the party in power to have that power.

    If each side feels so justified using all the rules at their disposal to get their way, nothing can get done. Ideologues don’t seem to get that. This is the compromise/sacrifice required for democracy.

    BTW: “Demshevik” is a laughable term. Can you imagine the Democratic putsch? No leader, no unity, no backbone, no revolution.