Sun, Mar 20, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Will the US Senate choose the nuclear option, or go nukular

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Aides who think they can con their boss into deciding an issue their way employ a sneaky maneuver known around the White House as "the Option 3 trick."

You submit a memo presenting a range of five choices: the top one amounts to Abject Surrender and the bottom one to Nuclear Strike. In this way, the chief executive is induced to choose the one in the middle -- Option 3, the most sensible, or at least the most centrist, choice. I tried to get away with the Option 3 trick once with President Nixon, but his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, intercepted my decision memo and panicked me by musing, "Interesting you should bring up the nuclear option."

That was the first time I heard that phrase, now on the tips of wagging worried tongues in Washington, as an extended metaphor. In its original, horrific sense, the phrase was coined in the March 1962 issue of The American Political Science Review: "The strategic nuclear option was a policy for which both the weapons and a doctrine existed." Ten years later, Nixon charged that the defense policy of his opponent, George McGovern, would strip the US of conventional forces and would leave us "with only a nuclear option."

Now the term is used to mean "an action that invites a really bitter battle." In March 2003, the Mississippi Republican Trent Lott was troubled by the Democrats' use of the threat of a filibuster, or Senate-stopping "extended debate," which prevented a vote on some of President Bush's judicial nominees. Charles Hurt of the Washington Times wrote that Lott told him of a plan that might allow Republicans to confirm a judge with a simple 51-vote majority -- rather than the 60 votes needed under the present rules to "break" a filibuster. Lott "declined to elaborate, warning that his idea is `nuclear.'" This led Michael Crowley of The New Republic to ask rhetorically: "What might Lott's `nuclear' option be?"

It might be to change Senate rules to allow cloture (thereby ending debate) with a majority of 51 on judicial nominations, though not on legislation, on the theory that the US Constitution's requirement that the Senate "advise and consent" on a nomination calls for a vote that the minority should not block. Opponents cite recent precedents to the contrary. (This column, straining mightily to be nonpartisan, focuses on the phrase that has caught on, as political confrontation looms.)

Both sides are girding loins for the judicial jousting. "If we have a nuclear option," said the Senate Judiciary chairman, Arlen Specter, "the Senate will be in turmoil, and the Judiciary Committee will be hell." The Democrat Charles Schumer said it would turn the Senate "into a nuclear waste -- into a legislative wasteland." (The New York senator drew back from a further extension of the scary metaphor.)

Through the centuries, those in the minority have thought of the filibuster as the Senate's barrier to the tyranny of the majority, while those in the majority think of it as a subversion of democracy's majority rule. I asked Lott if he was indeed the coiner of this year's most radioactive phrase, and he demurred: "I don't recall being the first to use the word `nuclear.' This is a matter of the rules of the Senate, which sets its own rules. I prefer calling it the constitutional option. The other side is acting like we're going to blow the place up."

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