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For decades, majority leaders in the U.S. Senate have threatened to use the "nuclear option" to change senators’ ability to filibuster, a maneuver that blocks bills from coming to a vote unless a supermajority of the chamber votes to proceed.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is one member of the body who has fought to protect the status quo.
In a recent tweet, Manchin said, "I was the only member of the Senate – Republican or Democrat – who has consistently voted against efforts to use the so called ‘nuclear option’ to change the rules of the Senate. This move is a betrayal of the people we represent."
We wondered whether Manchin was right that he had a uniquely consistent record on such votes. So we reached out to two experts in Senate procedure to see whether Manchin’s statement was accurate. (Manchin’s office did not respond to an inquiry.)
First, some background on the nuclear option.
As we’ve previously noted, there is a legend of uncertain veracity that says George Washington and Thomas Jefferson came to agree that the Senate should serve as a "saucer" to the House’s "tea cup" — a vessel for cooling the passions emanating from the House.
Whether the specifics of the tale hold up, the idea that the Senate is the slower, more cautious half of Congress has been the chamber’s reputation throughout its history. The Constitution delegates internal rule-setting to the Senate itself, and for much of its history, the chamber — unlike the House — did not implement any mechanism to maneuver around a member who was determined enough to block action through a filibuster.
In 1917, the Senate voted to empower a supermajority of two-thirds to cut off a filibuster and move on to other business by invoking a motion known as "cloture." (Since the Senate had 96 members then, that meant 64 were needed to invoke cloture if all members were voting.) Then, in 1975, the Senate voted to lower the supermajority to its current number, 60 out of 100 members.
Still, 60 votes is a significant hurdle for a chamber that has not often had one party win that many seats. In recent years, the two parties have become more polarized, and more willing to filibuster, even on matters that had previously been treated as routine. That has put pressure on Senate leaders to get rid of the longstanding supermajority hurdle or else face gridlock -- especially for such high-stakes topics as nominations.
Detractors have warned that such important matters were better dealt with using the higher degree of consensus conveyed through a 60-vote supermajority. But there is one tool available to a Senate leader willing to buck the chamber’s long standing tradition: the nuclear option.
The mechanics of the nuclear option (which has nothing to do with anything literally nuclear) are complex even by the standards of parliamentary maneuvers, requiring a precise series of carefully choreographed steps. Readers brave enough to tackle the details can refer to multi-page explanations in these two reports by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.
The gist, though, is that the majority party would move to change the supermajority rule through a series of votes that require only a simple majority.
Gregory Koger, a University of Miami political scientist, cited four key votes for the nuclear option. One came in 2013, when the Democrats were in control, one came in 2017, when Republicans were in control, and the final one came in 2019, when the Republicans were still in control.
In 2013, the Democratic leadership used the nuclear option to get rid of the filibuster for all nominations except Supreme Court appointments. Manchin voted against his own party, to keep the status quo.
In 2017, Republicans leaders called a vote to eliminate the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations. Here, Manchin cast a vote to maintain the status quo, siding with Democrats against the Republican majority seeking to go nuclear.
Then, in 2019, Republican leaders offered two relevant votes. While they weren’t specifically about filibusters, they addressed delaying tactics that can advantage the minority.
In both cases, Manchin voted to maintain the status quo.
In 2013, two fellow Democratic senators voted with Manchin and against their party’s leadership -- then-Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. Neither remains in the chamber.
And two Republicans who voted with Democrats in the 2019 votes had stuck with their own party in the 2017 vote, meaning that their voting record wasn’t "consistent" with the status quo in all cases.
Manchin said, "I was the only member of the Senate – Republican or Democrat – who has consistently voted against efforts to use the so called ‘nuclear option’ to change the rules of the Senate."
Experts in Senate procedure tell PolitiFact that Manchin is correct, having voted in favor of the status quo -- and against "nuclear option" efforts -- in each of the four relevant votes between 2013 and 2019.
We rate this statement True.
Joe Manchin, tweet, April 5, 2019
PolitiFact, "6 questions answered about ‘the nuclear option,’ the filibuster, and Supreme Court nominations," Feb. 3, 2017
Email interview with Gregory Koger, University of Miami political scientist, April 10-11, 2019
Email interview with Steven Smith, political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, April 10, 2019
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