WASHINGTON — Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee called Senate Democrats' move Thursday to limit use of the filibuster "an exercise of raw, partisan political power" resembling passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010.
By a 52-48 vote, the Democratic majority changed the rules of the chamber on filibusters — the use or threat of extended debate to prevent consideration of issues or appointments — on most presidential nominations to federal judgeships and other posts. Filibusters took 60 votes to overcome, but now they can be ended with 51 votes.
Changing Senate rules through use of a simple majority vote has long been called the "nuclear option" and both parties have entertained the idea over the past decade as they alternated control of the chamber. In fact, Alexander found himself on the other side of the debate when a Republican occupied the White House.
Most recently, Democrats had grown increasingly irritated over Republican filibusters that prevented President Barack Obama from filling several seats on the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals.
Alexander, in an impassioned floor speech, said that was insufficient justification for changing rules that epitomized respect for minority rights in the Senate. Quoting former Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, Alexander said, "If a majority can change its rules at any time, there are no rules."
The Tennessee lawmaker added, "I hope we will resist turning the Senate into an institution where the home team can cheat to win the game to get whatever result it wants at any time it wants."
The rules change, Alexander said, reflected an absence of bipartisanship similar to that marking the health care reform debate of three years ago. Democrats, who then controlled the Senate and the House, passed the Affordable Care Act without a single Republican vote in either chamber.
"If the Democrats proceed to use the nuclear option in this way, it will be Obamacare II: It will be another raw exercise of partisan political power to say we can do whatever we want to do," Alexander said. "The only cure for that is a referendum next November."
Alexander, however, has been a key figure in past debates about changing the filibuster rules — and not on the same side.
In 2005, for instance, he joined former Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., in defending the right of then Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee to call for changes in filibuster rules. Alexander said then that Democrats, in the minority in the Senate at the time, threatened the federal government with a "train wreck" by their frequent use of filibusters to block the judicial appointments of former President George W. Bush.
"The train wreck I am talking about is a threat by the minority to 'shut the Senate down in every way' if the majority adopts rules that will do what the Senate has done for 200 years, which is to vote up or down the president's appellate judicial nominees," Alexander said in an April 2005 floor speech.
Fellow Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee issued a brief comment.
"I could not be more disappointed that (Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid) has chosen this course of action," Corker said of the Nevada Democrat.