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Nuclear Option

The “nuclear option” is a metaphorical term that refers to a parliamentary procedure in the U.S. Senate allowing for a significant change to the rules by a simple majority vote, instead of the usual two-thirds or three-fifths majority.

It’s referred to as “nuclear” due to the dramatic and potentially far-reaching impact it can have on Senate proceedings.

Traditionally, the nuclear option is associated with changes to the rules governing filibusters.

A filibuster is a tactic used in the Senate to extend debate on a proposal, potentially indefinitely, thus blocking or delaying a vote.

To end a filibuster, a three-fifths majority (usually 60 out of 100 senators) must vote for cloture, effectively closing the debate.

Origin of “Nuclear Option”

The term came into common parlance in the early 2000s, though the concept has roots in earlier Senate history.

Senator Trent Lott (R-MS) first called the option “nuclear” in March 2003, using the metaphor of a nuclear strike to suggest it might provoke retaliation by the minority party.

The nuclear option was famously invoked in 2013 by Senate Democrats to eliminate the 60-vote requirement for most presidential nominees, except those for the Supreme Court.

In 2017, Senate Republicans extended this to include Supreme Court nominees.

An opinion written by Vice President Richard Nixon in 1957 concluded that the U.S. Constitution grants the presiding officer the authority to override Senate rules in this way.

If a majority vote to uphold the presiding officer, his interpretation of the rules becomes a precedent.

Use of “Nuclear Option” in a sentence

  • In 2013, Senate Democrats invoked the nuclear option to lower the threshold for confirming most presidential nominees, a move that dramatically altered the confirmation process and heightened partisan tensions in the chamber.
  • Some political commentators have warned that using the nuclear option to eliminate the legislative filibuster could undermine the Senate’s traditional role as a deliberative body, reducing opportunities for compromise and bipartisan cooperation.
  • The threat of the nuclear option loomed over the Senate’s debate on the controversial bill, with majority party leaders hinting that they might resort to this drastic measure to bypass a potential filibuster and ensure the legislation’s passage.