Breaking rules to change rules

By Andy Balaskovitz
U.S. Sen. Carl Levin at Michigan State University today. Andy Balaskovitz/City Pulse

U.S. Sen. Carl Levin explains how he sided against fellow Democrats over filibuster vote: “This was a temporary victory for Democrats.”

Friday, Dec. 6 — U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit, agrees that filibuster rules in the Senate need to change — he just disagrees about how his Democratic colleagues did so two weeks ago.

Levin, speaking at Michigan State University’s College of Law today, addressed the “huge ethical dimension” that surfaced in national politics late last month when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid resorted to the “nuclear option” for limiting Republicans’ filibuster authority.

Levin was one of three Senate Democrats to vote against what effectively changed filibuster rules for executive and judicial nominees, which he says could also be used for legislation.

“The question of how you accomplish something becomes very critical,” Levin said today. “When we talked about using the nuclear option, in the Senate that means changing the rules by violating them. That’s why it’s called nuclear.

“I decided I could not vote (with fellow Democrats) because of the stakes involved when you break the rules in order to change them.”

On Nov. 21, Senate Democrats attempted to end the debate on the appointment of Patricia Millett to a D.C. Circuit Court seat that Republicans were threatening to block. After not having 60 votes to end the debate, Reid, along with 51 other Democrats, challenged the rule. Levin said Democrats “adopted a precedent” that could end up hurting them in the long run.

Levin, Michigan’s longest serving U.S. senator, conceded the issue is the “process-y side of process,” but that, in the long run, it’s about “means and ends” — that what you accomplish is as important as how you accomplish it.

To be sure, Republicans have used the threat of filibuster to “tie up” the U.S. Senate, handing President Barack Obama more filibuster threats than the past four presidents combined, Levin said.

But Levin warned — and as Senate Republicans have promised — “tides shift” in politics and Democrats may end up on the other side of this debate, crying foul as they did in years past when Republicans have threatened to rule the Senate by majority votes. For this precedent, he said, is “just as usable on legislation as (presidential) nominees.”

“The exact same can — and I predict will — be used when Republicans take control,” Levin said. “The environment, reproductive rights, the elimination of the EPA will all be in play. Tides shift in politics. When that time comes, it was (Democrats) who favored breaking the rules by changing them. We put this in play ourselves.

“This was a temporary victory for Democrats. But down the road, hard-won protections for the health and welfare (of U.S. citizens) is a lot less secure.”

Levin’s solution for filibuster reform means putting pressure on Republicans “to talk” through a real filibuster, rather than simply threatening one.

“I hope we can learn through painful lessons to bring a more civil, thoughtful and restrained approach to the problems we face together,” he said. “If not, we will see our nation sapped of its vital strength.”