As Democrats push to pass voting rights legislation through Congress, there's been talk of using a process known as the "nuclear option."
It's an overheated phrase that boils down to changing Senate rules to pass legislation with a simple majority.
Senators need 60 votes to do just about anything in the Senate but change the rules. That takes only 51 votes.
Nuclear? That sounds harsh for something as simple as a rule change.
Senators view themselves as being part of the "world's greatest deliberative body." It's a debatable point, but in order to protect the minority party and make sure nobody does anything without a full debate, Senate rules require that 60 of 100 senators agree to votes to move toward passing legislation. In the fancy language they speak on Capitol Hill, limiting debate and moving toward a vote is called "invoking cloture."
Actually passing the legislation takes only 51 votes, but because of the procedural rules, it takes 60 to invoke cloture and get to the actual vote. By requiring only 51 votes to limit debate, the entire character of the chamber would change. Instead of being forced to get buy-in from the minority party — Republicans right now — the majority party would be able to pass anything for which it could get a simple majority.
The idea is that it would figuratively "blow up" the Senate. For now, a simple majority Senate excites many Democrats who want to pass more legislation. It frightens Republicans whose strategy is to grind things on Capitol Hill to a halt.
The symbolism of "going nuclear" portends a sort of mutually assured destruction in the future, to borrow another Cold War term. Democrats won't always control the Senate. And when Republicans are in charge, you can bet they'll return the favor.
Why is all this coming to a head now? More and more Democrats support doing away with the filibuster, at least in some circumstances. Already, most major legislation — tax cuts during the Trump administration and health care during the Obama administration — required finding a way around filibuster rules. In those two cases, party leaders exploited budget rules.
But that's an imperfect solution and would not work for voting rights, the issue over which most Democrats argue it's worth changing rules.
Democrats want to impose new national rules to protect the rights of voters as Republicans in key states scramble to limit access to mail-in voting and otherwise make it more difficult to cast a ballot.
But the consequences of going nuclear would extend beyond voting rights. You can't go back from the nuclear option. That's why more moderate Democrats, like Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, aren't yet on board with pushing the nuclear button.