As the Senate works towards confirming President Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees, the impact of a controversial rules change in 2013 has been evident. Of the few cabinet nominees that have passed through the Senate, three were confirmed with under 60 votes.
The Senate confirmed Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State with 56 votes; Jeff Sessions as Attorney General with 52 votes; and Betsy DeVos, who barely reached a majority of 51 votes without Vice President Mike Pence’s deciding vote to confirm her as Secretary of Education.
Because of the change, Senate Democrats are now unable to do little else to oppose Trump’s nominees than to draw out their confirmation processes for as long as possible.
Following Trump’s victory in November, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who opposed ending the filibuster in 2013, told CNN that he wished the rules change hadn’t happened. But Schumer isn’t the only Democrat who has expressed regret on the issue.
Prior to Sessions’ confirmation vote on Wednesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) told Independent Journal Review that Democrats “have done everything we can under the rules” to oppose the nominee. When IJR asked whether nuking the filibuster was a good idea in hindsight, Feinstein replied:
“As we look back, it may well have been better to not have changed the rules.”
Some Democrats remain unapologetic about the decision, however. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told IJR he maintains that filibuster reform was essential:
“At the time I thought, ‘I might serve here with a Republican president and I might serve here when there’s a Republican majority.’ We were in a situation where positions that were really important were going vacant for years at a time.”
Before 2013, cabinet nominees required a supermajority of 60 votes to be confirmed. Historically, the confirmation process has been smooth and mostly nonpartisan.
But when Senate Democrats faced a wave of obstruction in which Republicans used the filibuster–a tool that enables the minority party to halt proceedings indefinitely–on some of President Barack Obama’s cabinet nominees and judicial appointments, some became convinced that change was necessary.
Democrats, under then-Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), pulled the trigger on what is now known as the “nuclear option,” changing the required amount of votes for confirmation from a supermajority to a simple majority of 51 votes.
As Senate Democrats come to terms with their inability to block Trump’s nominees, they might be reminded of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s warning against the rules change in 2013.
“I 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,” he said.