Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's decision last week to go "nuclear" — securing votes to lower the threshold for ending a filibuster against presidential nominees — had its genesis in a 1957 ruling in the Senate made by none other than Republican Vice President Richard Nixon.
Calls for lowering the number of votes to end a Senate filibuster to a simple majority had been pursued fruitlessly by liberal Democrats for years, but the cause got its greatest boost and resulting press attention from a ruling Nixon made from the presiding officer's chair in the Senate in 1957.
As Irwin Gellman, historian and author of the much-praised Nixon biography, "The Contender," told Newsmax, "What Nixon was trying to achieve for all legislation with his ruling in 1957 was the 'nuclear option' that Reid finally got through last week regarding most presidential nominations — a simple majority to end filibusters."
For decades prior to 1957, a minority of Democrats from the South had used the filibuster to thwart any legislation providing civil rights for minorities.
Under Senate Rule XXII, unlimited debate was provided for, and cloture — shutting off the debate — could only be imposed if two-thirds of the senators voted for it. That meant that the votes of senators from the former Confederacy were enough to sustain a filibuster indefinitely.
In 1952, liberal Democrats who wanted to weaken the filibuster rule and enact civil rights legislation had an ally in California Sen. Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee for vice president.
Campaigning in New York, Nixon vowed that Dwight Eisenhower would deliver on civil rights for black Americans because he "he is going to have a vice president who opposes the filibuster ... [civil rights] cannot pass as long as the filibuster exists in the Senate."
With rules disposed of when the Senate convened both in 1953 and in 1955, Vice President Nixon was unable to do anything about the issue as the presiding officer of the Senate.
However, on Jan. 3, 1957, when the 85th Congress convened and Democratic Sen. Clinton Anderson of New Mexico moved for adoption of new Senate rules, Nixon ruled from the chair — against precedent — that the motion was in order.
"If Nixon's ruling prevailed, the old rules — including XXII — would be held to have expired with the 84th Congress," wrote Tom Wicker, veteran New York Times Senate correspondent. "New rules then could be adopted, including a modified cloture rule making it easier to shut off a filibuster.
"If anyone filibustered to prevent new rules from being adopted, cloture could be imposed by a simple majority — owing to the expiration of Rule XXII under Nixon's ruling."
But it was not to be. The next day the Senate voted 55 to 38 to table Anderson's motion and kept Nixon's ruling from coming up for a vote. Two years later, the vice president, possibly with his eye on black voters when he sought the presidency in 1960, again made the same ruling. Again, he was thwarted by the full Senate.
But crafty Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, a Texas Democrat, also eyeing a presidential bid the following year, did secure a compromise vote permitting cloture by a vote of two-thirds of all senators present rather than the entire body.
With liberal Democrats growing stronger and the Southern bloc of Democrats declining, the Senate in 1975 finally lowered the threshold from two-thirds of those present (67) to 60. Last week, with every Democratic senator voting "aye," the threshold was lowered to 51 when it came to presidential appointments except Supreme Court justices.
As Democrats from the White House on down hail the "nuclear option," they might be surprised to read its history and find that it goes back directly to their former nemesis, Richard Nixon.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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