How The Nuclear Option Really Works, Step By Step

From:,  by Wm P. Fitzhenry,  on Apr 6, 2017

Dry as dust.

If you were to ask a nuclear weapon designer how the bomb works, besides them telling you it’s classified as hell, they might tell you the physics and mathematics are fairly dull. Building and detonating the thing isn’t as exciting as you might think, but the boom at the end is very satisfying. In the Senate, executing the “nuclear option” to overturn a century of filibuster tradition is also dry as dust. But if you want to know the step by step, here’s how it works.

Basically, this is what has taken place so far, and what will happen during the next 60 hours or so.


Step 1: Sen. McConnell filed a motion for a vote of approval on the nominee Neil Gorsuch. Step 2: Sen. Schumer notified the Chair of the Democrat’s intent to filibuster that motion.  At that time, the Democrats officially began their SCOTUS nominee filibuster. Sometime shortly after the filibuster began, Step 3: Sen. McConnell filed a motion for Cloture. Cloture is the procedure to end debate in order to proceed to the vote. In this case, the vote to approve Gorsuch.


According to Senate rules, that motion for Cloture has to “bake” for 24 hours. Which means today was basically an idle day in this process, allowing various senators to take the floor and give their opinion about the nominee or anything else which might have tripped their trigger.

NOW, here is where it gets really interesting.


Step 4: One hour after the Senate has convened Thursday morning, the senate will take up the motion for Cloture and proceed to vote on whether to end the filibuster or not. A Yay vote indicates the voter wants the filibuster to end. A NAY vote means the senator wants the filibuster to continue. In order for the YAY votes (Republicans) to win, they will need 60 votes. This is and has been senate precedent for many decades. (Remember this, I will come back to it shortly.). In order for the NAY votes to succeed (Democrats), they need 41 votes. As of now, the Whip count is 44 NAYs.

If the NAYs have over 40 votes, then the filibuster will go on. Apparently, the Democrats have over 40 votes so the filibuster will continue. This is where a bit of a technicality comes into play. Sen. Mitch McConnell will vote NAY with the Democrats because the NAYs technically are the minority vote even though the Democrats/NAYs got what they wanted.  This is a very integral piece of this puzzle.

Step 5: Because the bourbon sipping Majority Leader voted in the minority, by Senate rules, he is allowed to request a re-vote. Which he will promptly do.

So, here is where we are: Motion for Cloture (ending filibuster) fails because the Republicans do not get 60 votes. Senator Mitch McConnell having voted NAY with the Democrats, request the Chair have a re-vote on the motion for Cloture.

However, as he makes this request, he will add a rider to it. Something like “Mr. President, I request a re-vote on this motion for Cloture, and furthermore I request that only a simple majority of 51 votes is required.”

Step 6: Here is Sen. Schumer’s cue: “Mr. President, I object. Blah blah blah. Senate precedent is 60 votes to pass the motion for Cloture, not a simple majority. I ask you deny my good friend, the senator from Kentucky’s request for a re-vote needing only a simple majority of 51 votes to pass.”

Step 7: This is where the Chair has his/her speaking part: “Sen. McConnell’s request for a re-vote needing only a simple majority, 51 votes, is denied due to the fact that senate precedent requires 60 votes to pass the motion for Cloture.


Step 8: Where upon Sen. McConnell steps right up and makes a motion to overturn the ruling of the Chair. A motion to overturn the ruling of the Chair only needs a simple majority, 51 votes. THIS IS THE NUCLEAR OPTION VOTE. 

So, while Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, Blaze, and RT are carrying C-SPAN live with assorted “Breaking News!!! banners, we will see some 51-53 senators vote to overturn the Chair’s ruling, which means we’ve just seen the nuclear option invoked.

Where was I? Oh, yeah, the nuclear option. (Sorry got carried away thinking about CNN. Breathless Wolf will undoubtably go to bed tonight thinking he’ll be picking in some high cotton tomorrow. I bet they are staying up all night dreaming up all those chyrons to scroll across the bottom of the screen.)

Step 9: After the vote to overturn the ruling of the Chair, and the nuclear option is invoked, Sen. McConnell will again request a re-vote on the motion for Cloture. Because the nuclear option has been approved, the motion for Cloture will now only require 51 votes to pass. It will pass and business will be over for Thursday. Now on to Friday night.


Step 10: By Senate rules, there must be 30 hours between a successful vote on Cloture and the actual vote to confirm the nominee. What this means is the actual vote to confirm SCOTUS nominee Neil Gorsuch will come late Friday night. But it will come. Mitch McConnell wants this done and over with. Besides, he’ll need time to schedule his victory dance on all of the Sunday talk shows.

It’s all very arcane and will actually be quite dull. The real entertainment starts after the motion for Cloture has passed Thursday. Look for Schumer and company to link arms, march to the Capitol steps, find as many cameras and microphones as they can and begin pontificating about the myriad ways McConnell and his partisan thugs have ruined the senate for all time. You will think they have memorized The Book of Revelation by their apocryphal prophecies.

Good times.  Now you know the boring, technical stuff behind the spectacle.

Postscript: You might hear Democrats and the MSM refer to the nuclear option as “changing the rules of the Senate”. This is simply not true. 67 votes are required to change senate rules. The traditional 60 votes required to end a filibuster is a “senate precedent”, or senate tradition. Changing a senate precedent such as the number of votes necessary to end Cloture requires only a simple majority, 51 votes. This is Democratic spin. Changing a rule seems more dramatic than changing precedent. 


This is good; thanks, Mr. Fitzhenry; it’s very descriptive of the arcane rules that must be followed to trigger the looming legislative holocaust that’s been labeled “the Nuclear Option.”

We (and Mitch McConnell) must thank the democrat’s chief rule-buster, Harry Reid, for making this action possible. He was the first to use this so-called “nuclear option” in 2013 in order to bypass a filibuster and get president Obama’s appointments to the federal bench past Senate confirmation when Republicans threatened filibusters. Until then, the procedure had never been used. Majority leader Reid established the precedent that Republicans will use to get Neil Gorsuch confirmed as a new Supreme Court Justice.



Categories: Political


6 replies

  1. And years from now, when Mitch McConnell is running for re-election or when it is otherwise politically expedient, Democrats will run campaign ads declaring: “Mitch McConnell voted to continue the filibuster on Gorsuch!” Such is the consequence of our crazy politics and rule-making/rule-breaking.

    Thanks for the interesting read, Garnet!


  2. My thanks to Mr. Fitzhenry and to you also Garnet for posting it. That’s a very good explanation of a process I didn’t fully understand.

    What I still don’t understand are the time lags. First they wait 24 hours for the motion to bake, then they kill another 30 hours between the cloture vote and the confirmation vote. Why? I’m guessing it’s some archaic rule of parliamentary procedure that dates back in history, but it’s a huge waste of time when there are so many other issues that need addressing.

    They’re about to leave for a two-week break and return to their states they’ll spend time patting themselves on the back. When you consider how little time the senate actually spends working, those wasted hours are extremely valuable.


    • I don’t know the reason for the time specified pauses. My guess is that it does go back to when communication was difficult and time-consuming and not practically instantaneous.

      You’re right about their work schedule, Kathy. When you think about it, all they really do is sit on their asses and talk. How taxing that must be. It’s no wonder why so many of us (our entire staff at PT included) could probably do a better job at legislating than our supposed “public servants” do.


  3. A great Civics 101 on this arcane process.
    Perhaps the most misunderstood (or intentionally mis-described) aspect being the nuclear option is neither a “changing of rules” nor “unprecedented”.


    • Right, Salty, in fact, most of the bitching I’ve been seeing from the dems uses the “changing of rules” nomenclature – I think they’re trying to convince the LIVs that those pesky Republicans are screwing with time-honored Senate rules – and that’s just not fair!


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