The Senate’s “Neutron Option”?

Roll Call reports this morning:

 The Senate voted, 52-48, to effectively change the rules by rejecting the opinion of the presiding officer that a supermajority is required to limit debate, or invoke cloture, on executive branch nominees and those for seats on federal courts short of the Supreme Court.

At least three Democrats — Carl Levin of Michigan, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas — voted to keep the rules unchanged.

The move came after Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., raised a point of order that only a majority of senators were required to break filibusters of such nominees. Presiding over the Senate as president pro tem, Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont issued a ruling in line with past precedent, saying that 60 votes were required. Leahy personally supported making the change.

Voting against Leahy’s ruling has the effect of changing the rules to require only a simple majority for most nominations.

There are two interesting aspects of this action. First, Senator Leahy apparently voted to reverse his own ruling, which is puzzling to say the least. Either his initial ruling was correct, or it was not. One would have to infer that he believes his ruling was correct under the existing rules of the Senate, but that the Senate could choose to change the rules by reversing it. But I am not aware of any legal theory that would justify that approach.

Second, the new rule evidently is intended to apply solely to executive branch nominations and to non-Supreme Court judicial nominations. So the filibuster apparently survives only as to one particular type of nomination. Call it the “neutron option.” (If you are too young to get this reference, google it).

Again, however, I am not aware of any legal or constitutional theory that would justify distinguishing between Supreme Court and other nominations. By this I don’t mean I am unaware of any good legal theory. As we have discussed before, there are a number of legal arguments that have been invoked to support the nuclear option, including some that I find quite implausible. However, I am not aware of any argument, plausible or implausible, that supports what the Senate apparently did today.