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Harry Reid on the Senate, the Supreme Court and a time for significant change



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The decision of Senate Republicans to block the Senate nominee of Amy Coney Barrett in the last days before the election — when they even refused to hold hearings on the nomination of Merrick Garland in 2016 — has brought the Senate’s dysfunction and hypocrisy to a great public attention.

The decision of Senate Republicans to block Senate nomination of Amy Coney Barrett in the last days before election — when they refused even to hold hearings on the nomination of Merrick Garland in 2016 — has brought the Senate’s dysfunction and hypocrisy to a wide public notice. A defense that Republicans have offered Democratic people is: You started it. They specifically say that the breakdown began with a 2013 decision by then-majority leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, to lead the effort to reintroduce the filibuster for lower court judges and other presidential nominees. President Donald Trump earlier this month retweeted a message from Senator Lindsey Graham, with this tweet : “Harry Reid’Chuck Schumer changed Senate rules to try and consolidate the courts for Obama. Now it returns to haunt them like I predicted.”

Reid, who resigned in 2016 from the Senate, has no regrets. During the last two and a half years he has battled pancreatic cancer in his home in Las Vegas. In a recent conversation, Reid said he has kept the disease away from him. However, most importantly he wanted to discuss the Senate, the election and Donald Trump. Reid told me that she wants to get this off my chest. Trump has said that what happened to the Senate is all my fault because of what we did in 2013. You must remember but it is the time that was happening. Obama was President. We had the majority, but we didn’t have enough to break filibusters. And the Republicans were pursuing everything in filibuster mode. For the first time in history, they filibusted the nomination of a Secretary of the Navy, and let’s not forget that it was Chuck Hagel, a Republican. They ran all the sub-scabinet positions, all his judges. The government could not function properly. We also changed the rule, and I’m glad we did.”

Reid has a point about judges particularly. In his first term Obama had managed to fill two Supreme Court seats, but by the time he was re-elected, Republican filibusters had brought the confirmation of judges to a near — total halt. Obama had three nominations for the D.C. in 2013. Circuit, known as the second largest court in the nation, and Mitch McConnell, then Minority Leader, were constructing filibusters against them all. In response, Reid and his Democratic colleagues changed the rule, so that only a simple majority was required instead of sixty votes to close debates on judges and President-elects. D.C. Circuit nominees were confirmed as were several dozen other judges before the 2014 midterm election when Republicans achieved a majority in the Senate. At this point, McConnell closed almost entirely the confirmation of Obama’s judges. Obama would have achieved nothing if we had not acted, said Reid. “We had no choice — zero.”

In the years of Trump the Senate has passed legislation almost entirely. In the first two years of Trump’s term when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, the majority of the House Republicans influenced the Senate. Since 2018 when Democrats retake the House, McConnell has mostly blocked Senate votes on measures passed by that chamber. The Senate under McConnell has most essentially solely worked to confirm judges (by majority vote) and pass budgets. (There were brief moments of bipartisanship when the Senate passed bills addressing the coronavirus epidemic, but another bill appears to be doomed.) In light of this gridlock, a question has emerged as to what to do if Joe Biden wins the presidency and Democrats win the Senate. Are republicans with a majority, but less than 60 votes, stopping them from anything?

The time has come for the filibuster to go and it will go. It is not a question of whether, but when,” said Reid to me. “There is no legislative bill passed. There are no votes on amendments. You can’t have a législator that required sixty per cent of us to contribute. Its usefulness has ended… but that is not the only structural reform Reid wants passed.

Reid was the senator’s minority leader when McConnell blocked the nomination of Garland on the argument that there should be no Supreme Court confirmations in an election year. Now, of course, McConnell leads Barrett in the fight. Reid thinks that it is time for some compensation for what he views as the theft of these two seats. Reid was a Senate institutionist but now he’s ready for the Senate to consider some major changes to the structure of the US government. The Supreme Court is not a static body. It’s not always been nine members — they had five, eight, different numbers – Reid said. (The composition of the Court is dated by statute from 1869 on nine.) He added that it is time that we do something after the election, something very publicly. We should conduct some hearings and educate the public about this history. We should show that we’ve changed the number of Justices in the past and we could have to do it again.”

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