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And credit for the nuclear option goes to...

By Leigh Ann Caldwell, CNN
updated 6:28 PM EST, Fri November 22, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The progressive blogosphere had a major role in invoking the nuclear option
  • A coalition of labor and advocacy groups persuaded 2 million members to contact their senators
  • Momentum built when Senate Majority Harry Reid became warm to the idea

Washington (CNN) -- What was known as the nuclear option yesterday is known as the Reid Rule today. Time will only tell if the Reid Rule is productive or destructive. But we'll leave that to the historians.

As for how it became the Reid rule, it took a coordinated and sustained effort from an unlikely place -- progressive activists on the blogosphere.

After Sen. Ted Kennedy died in 2009, Democrats lost their supermajority in the Senate -- enough to overcome a Republican filibuster -- progressive bloggers felt compelled to act against what they called "Republican obstructionism." The Senate, still with a huge majority of 59 Democrats, coupled with a Democratic majority in the House, struggled to pass legislation.

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The power of the Republican minority was outsized, filibuster opponents say. And filibuster reform became their mission.

Daily Kos blogger David Waldman started to drum up support online. "I knew that this would be an issue because I had seen mounting threats of obstructionism on the Republican side," Waldman told CNN.

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He wrote extensively about filibuster reform in 2005, another time when the Senate was mired in partisan gridlock. At that time it was over President George W. Bush's judicial nominees and Democrats were in the minority. Republicans threatened the nuclear option then, but never acted. Eventually, the bipartisan "Gang of 14" senators cut a deal that calmed things down.

In the Obama era, Waldman argued that the use of the filibuster grew out of control. After blogging about the ability of the Republican minority to block legislation and presidential nominations, Waldman knew grassroots activists could only do so much. While they could engage fellow activists, he wasn't so sure he could convince senators, especially the veterans steeped in Senate tradition and reluctant to change the ways of the past, that change was possible.

There was precedent

But Waldman knew that things could change. As draconian as the Senate could be, he knew the Senate had changed in the past.

Senate historian Donald Ritchie believes that although the first filibuster took place in the very first Congress, the word filibuster was not used until the 1850s. At that time, there was no way to stop a rogue senator from holding up business until 1917 when senators voted to change the rules to allow a cloture vote, which enabled 67 senators to defeat the stalling tactic.

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The filibuster was famously used to block two different versions of the Civil Rights Act. Former Sen. Strom Thurmond's successful 24-hour talkathon helped to kill civil rights legislation in 1957. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, tried the same tactic in 1964. His 14-hour filibuster was part of a 57-day-long stalling effort that, ultimately, was not effective in killing the legislation.

The next major change to the filibuster came in 1975, when the threshold to stop a filibuster was lowered from 67 lawmakers to 60.

Growing support

Waldman and his co-conspirators formed a strategy referred to as an inside-outside coalition. The outside consisted of the grassroots, charged with motivating progressives to sign petitions and call their senators.

The inside, Waldman said, needed to sway senators. It would need to consist of people senators knew and trusted.

He had to convince a diverse group of advocates that climate change, immigration, the judiciary, and the economy all had one thing in common: The filibuster blocked their legislative goals.

"Getting them to recognize outside their issue silo there's this one issue frustrating all of you" was key to success, Waldman said.

That's when Fix the Senate Coalition formed. The Sierra Club joined on. So did the NAACP and the Communications Workers of America, just to name a few.

CWA President Larry Cohen said it was clear something needed to be done.

For instance, Obama did an end run around Republican opposition to the appointment of Ricard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. A circuit court ruled that the appointment was illegal. Cohen said those actions were "connected" because Republican opposition kept the President from filling the four circuit court vacancies.

"That's the torturous route that brought us to agreement," Cohen said.

Cohen said he and the coalition of groups persuaded two million of their members to either call, e-mail or write their senators pushing for filibuster reform.

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He also said that at the NAACP conference this summer, around the time the Senate was on the brink of invoking the nuclear option, leaders paused the program for attendees to call their senators to end the filibuster.

Things started to shift when Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid became warm to the idea. At first Reid was reluctant, but when handshake agreements with his counterpart, Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, didn't stick, Reid became more open, eventually turning his threats of nuclear option into reality.

While it only applies to presidential nominees, it excludes legislative matters. Advocates, however, say this is a good start.

"I might be destroying the Senate," Waldman said on his radio program Thursday just before the Reid pulled the trigger. But he quickly dismissed that assessment: "But it kind of sucks now."

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