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Confused about the 'nuclear option?' What you need to know

Okay, so the Senate – the world’s “greatest deliberative body” and one that’s known for having lots of rules -- just made a major change to how it’s going to address nominations in the future.  

Unless you follow Congress every day, it probably seems like an adult version of “Calvinball,” so here’s a quick explanation of what happened, what it might mean, and why lawmakers did this in the first place.

Q: The Senate did something important today, but I’m confused: What exactly did they change?

A: Essentially, the Senate voted to eliminate filibusters for most presidential nominations.  Nominations – like for judgeships or cabinet positions – previously had to get the support of 60 or more senators before a final vote if the minority party tried to block them. Under the new rules, most nominations will only need a simple majority to go forward.

Q: Sixty votes seems pretty reasonable to me. Why the fuss?

A: It used to be that nominees rarely had to overcome the 60-vote threshold. From 1968 to 1992, the whole process of having to vote to overcome a possible filibuster was done no more than three times every two years or so. But since the Bush years – and now frequently during Obama’s presidency – the party that isn’t in power has made the filibuster pretty much business-as-usual in the Senate, even if no one objects to the actual person being nominated for a job.

Q: Why do they call it the 'nuclear option,' though?

A: Here’s the thing: The Senate can generally modify its rules whenever lawmakers want to, provided that they have a two-thirds majority agreeing to the change. But what Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid did on Thursday amounted to a lot of procedural jujitsu that meant only 51 senators, all Democrats, had to approve the rule change.  That’s one reason it’s so dramatic.

As for the name, it’s meant to be a metaphor for an option that’s really a last resort, like launching a nuclear bomb when all else has failed. Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi was the first to use it this way.  

Q: Wait, does this mean that the president can pretty much push through any Supreme Court nominee he wants? That seems like a big deal.

A: No, this rule change will NOT apply to Supreme Court picks, just to judicial nominees for lesser courts and to nominees to executive branch positions like cabinet rank jobs.

Q: What about laws? Will it be harder for Republicans to block them now?

A: Nope, the 60-vote threshold will still apply to procedural votes on legislation. The simple majority rule only applies to nominations.

Q: How long will this rule be in place?

A: Unless Democrats suddenly have a change of heart to reverse it, the rule will be in place at least until Republicans win back the majority in the Senate, which some observers say could happen in 2014.

Republicans were mad about the rule change, which dramatically reduces their power when it comes to nominations, but they hinted Thursday that Democrats might "regret this a lot sooner than you think."

In fact, many of them advocated for the same rule change back when Democrats were blocking President George W. Bush’s nominees. But it’s hard to imagine that the majority party will vote to give itself LESS power instead of more.

Q: Great! So this means the end of Washington gridlock, right?

A: LOL nice try! Unless you’re a presidential nominee, no way!

This change does make it more likely that the president’s picks for his team will make it through confirmation -- unless a lot of people in his own party turn against them. But this move will probably make the anger and frustration between the parties even worse than it was before, if you can imagine that.

Republicans are accusing Democrats of a “power grab” that’s bad for democracy, while Democrats are saying that they had no choice but to sideline the GOP lawmakers trying to gum up  nominations out of spite.  In this nasty environment, it doesn’t seem likely that anything except the absolutely necessary issues will be addressed at all. 

Related: Democrats drop the 'nuclear' bomb, so what happens next?

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