Dana Milbank: Mitch McConnell undid 213 years of Senate history in 33 minutes

Video: President Trump has been pushing Senate Republicans to go ‘nuclear’ in order to pass bills he supports. But what is the so-called ‘nuclear option’? (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Washington • Members of the Senate used to call their institution the “world’s greatest deliberative body.”

No one is likely to mistake it for that after Wednesday.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in his latest move to seize power by dismantling the chamber’s centuries-old safeguards, was about to push through another vote to break another rule. But first he gave a speech blaming the other side.

"The Democratic leader started all of this," McConnell proclaimed, his face blotchy red with anger.

Pointing at the Democratic leader, Charles E. Schumer of New York, McConnell added: "He started this whole thing."

If that weren't preschoolish enough, the once-distinguished gentleman from Kentucky said a third time: "He started it! That was a sad day. This is a glad day."

Schumer just smiled and shook his head.

Actually, Vice President Aaron Burr started “it” — the Senate tradition of unlimited debate, that is. That tradition has prevailed, more or less, in the Senate since 1806. Over that time, senators had the right to delay votes on presidential nominees they found objectionable. But McConnell undid 213 years of history in 33 minutes on Wednesday afternoon, holding a party-line vote to rewrite the rules of debate.

Both sides have chipped away at this right to filibuster in recent years. Democrats restricted it for circuit-court judges in 2013 (a move that, I wrote at the time, they would come to "deeply regret"), and McConnell's Republicans restricted it for Supreme Court justices in 2017. But McConnell has now significantly escalated, reducing the right to delay consideration of judicial or low-level executive nominees to two hours from the current 30. It's clearly just a matter of time — a few years, perhaps — until this leads to the complete abolition of the filibuster for everything, including legislation. This will further destabilize a federal government that has suffered many such blows during the past two years.

And McConnell took this extraordinary step — the "nuclear option," as it is known — on the mundane matter of confirming an assistant secretary of commerce who had no opposition. He did it even though the Senate has confirmed more appellate-level judges for Trump than for any president during his first two years in office going back to at least Harry S. Truman.

McConnell's move, it appears, had more to do with the mindless one-upmanship of our tribal partisanship. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., blurted out this motive on the Senate floor, saying his vote was "revenge" for a move by Schumer to block a nominee — 16 years ago. "Today, Sen. Schumer will reap what he sowed," Cotton declared.

Democrats, in turn, are already preparing to retaliate for this latest assault on Senate norms which, at least in theory, forced legislators to build bipartisan support for nominees. As The Washington Post's Paul Kane pointed out, McConnell's move "provides more fodder for liberal activists to push for complete elimination of the filibuster," which could one day advance policies such as Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and D.C. statehood.

McConnell has a history of doing things for short-term tactical gains, regardless of the cost. He did more than anybody else to open the floodgates to unlimited dark money in politics, famously declared his top priority was for President Barack Obama "to be a one-term president" and killed the Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland in 2016 by refusing to act on it. Between 2009 and 2013, McConnell's Republicans blocked 79 Obama nominees with filibusters, compared with 68 in the country's entire previous history.

Schumer denounced McConnell's hypocrisy. "This is a very sad day for the Senate," he said. Glaring at McConnell, he called the move to limit delays to two hours "a mockery of how this institution should work."

McConnell rose to blame his victims. He sat on the Garland nomination for a year, he said, because he knew "for absolute certainty" that Democrats would have done the same. And he's taking away the filibuster because Democrats made him.

"He's acting like it's a sad day for the Senate. You want to pick a sad day for the Senate? Go back to 2003, when we started filibustering … and he started it," McConnell said of Schumer. "So don't hand me this sad-day-in-the-Senate stuff."

He assured his Republican colleagues that "I don't think anybody ought to be seized with guilt over any institutional damage being done to the United States Senate."

McConnell then read out a 42-word parliamentary maneuver that jettisoned 213 years of wisdom.

Dana Milbank | The Washington Post

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. He sketches the foolish, the fallacious and the felonious in politics.