Do Democrats regret the 'nuclear option' now that Trump will be president?

Sen. Schumer to lead Dems against Trump
Sen. Schumer to lead Dems against Trump

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Story highlights

  • The "nuclear option" lowered the threshold to overcome a filibuster from 60 to 51 votes
  • The decision to lower the threshold came after GOP obstruction on Capitol Hill

Washington (CNN)Three years after using the "nuclear option" to upend Senate tradition by effectively removing filibusters against most presidential nominations, Senate Democrats insisted Thursday they don't regret that decision, even as Donald Trump becomes president and they recognize they may be powerless to block controversial nominations.

"I have absolutely no regret," said Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley, who led the charge to weaken the filibuster, freeing up scores of President Barack Obama's executive and judicial branch nominees. "We'd never seen abuse of advice and consent in the history of our country so that was a necessary way to correct it."
    Frustrated by numerous GOP filibusters against Obama's nominees, Merkley and other junior Democrats in 2013 lobbied their leaders to change the rules. Senior Democrats initially were wary of the bold step, reminding their younger colleagues that they would not be in the majority forever and that the move could come back to haunt them.
    But in November of that year, then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other top Democrats became convinced GOP delaying tactics were crippling Washington. They triggered the nuclear option which -- over the objections of Republicans -- lowered the threshold to overcome a filibuster from 60 to 51 votes.
    "The supermajority was used as a tool to assault the executive branch and judicial branch and that was the only cure available was to make it a simple majority," recalled Merkley.
    Merkley has spent much of the past week targeting Trump's new chief White House strategist Steve Bannon, who the senator said should be fired for being a "white nationalist" who "specializes in hate." In news conferences, interviews, and floor speeches, Merkley and other Democrats pressed Trump to fire the controversial aide.
    While Bannon's west wing job doesn't require Senate confirmation, Merkley was asked by CNN if he would be sorry not to have the supermajority filibuster if Trump had named Bannon attorney general or some other top sensitive position that requires Senate approval.
    The liberal Merkley quoted Gandhi, who said an eye for an eye would make the whole world blind.
    "If the minority is always paralyzing Congress, than Congress can never act to address problems," Merkley said. "We live in a country as a democracy where a simple majority is the vision of how we make decisions. The majority makes decisions, not the minority.
    Other Democratic senators also stood by the nuclear option and said they would have other ways to hold accountable Trump's nominees.
    "I generally oppose the filibuster and I'm going to vote my conscience on these nominees, particularly when it comes to conflict of interest and qualifications for the position," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut. "But my feeling generally is that the president should have the opportunity to select his team, and if he makes mistakes, he will be held accountable and so will they."
    Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pennsylvania, agreed.
    "I think you start with the premise that presidents should have the right to name their cabinet. It's our job to do the oversight and scrutiny and review that's appropriate," he said.
    "I'm not persuaded we should got back to the old way," Casey said, noting the 60-vote filibusters are still available for controversial legislation and Supreme Court nominations.
    However, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham argued Democrats made a huge mistake triggering the nuclear option and it will lead to more strident nominees being confirmed.
    "When you go simple majority you basically turn it over to one party and many times you get the harshest of the harsh," Graham said. "I think they did the Senate a disservice."