Nuclear Option

A term in the news quite a lot lately is nuclear option. The current usage isn’t the literal meaning of the words, some political or military strategy involving weapons of mass destruction. Rather, the nuclear option in the news is metaphorical. It refers to the US Senate changing the rules regarding filibuster to allow more of President Bush’s judicial nominees to be confirmed and take the bench.

For those non-Americans (and for those who don’t follow political news), the issue centers on arcane rules of procedure in the Senate. The Senate has the constitutional responsibility of approving the president’s judicial nominees and it does this with a simple majority vote. But in order to vote on an issue, Senate rules require 60 out of 100 senators to vote for cloture—the ending of debate. So the Democrats, who have 44 seats (plus an independent who votes with the Democrats on procedural issues), can prevent any nominee from coming to a vote—and they have blocked votes on 10 out of 215 Bush judicial nominees.

Evidently, a 95% success rate isn’t good enough for the Republican majority who are insisting that all the nominees come to a vote on the Senate floor. To do this, they are trying to change the Senate rules on filibuster and require a vote on judicial nominees. The filibuster is a venerable Senate tradition, one of the reasons why the body has the nickname of "greatest deliberative body in the world." This radical change is the so-called nuclear option.

Literal use of nuclear option has been around since the 1960s. The use in reference to the choice to develop nuclear weapons dates to 1966:

On the question of Israel’s potential for producing nuclear weapons, Professor Bergmann warned, "It’s very important to understand that by developing atomic energy for peaceful purposes, you reach the nuclear option; there are no two atomic energies.
--New York Times, 14 May 1966

And the literal predecessor of the current usage is in reference to using nuclear weapons during war:

Yet they urge a withdrawal of our forces from Asia, Europe and the Mediterranean; a "re-examination" of our commitments; and the abolition or severe reduction of foreign aid. How an American President could retain non-nuclear options in such a posture is never explained.
--New York Times, 18 Oct 1969

This last is particular telling because it leads to the current metaphorical usage. Nuclear weapons, while possibly quite effective in achieving a military goal, have long-term negative consequences and the damage inflicted violates any principle of proportionality. This is precisely what is meant by the current metaphorical usage.

This use of nuclear option in the specific sense regarding the filibuster of federal judicial nominations began with Republicans in 2002:

Still, some Republicans have raised the possibility of what they call the "nuclear" option—retaliating for Pickering’s defeat by tying up Senate business. "The feelings are running so deep on these issues, that that may well happen," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa. "Any one of us can tie the Senate in knots."
--Chicago Tribune, 14 May 2002

But the term has been in use for longer than this as a metaphor for risky or potentially devastating political moves. The term was used following the 2000 election to describe the option of resolving the disputed election in the courts:

They could all but concede the White House to Vice President Al Gore on the basis of manual recounts in three Democrat-leaning Florida counties or choose the political equivalent of the "nuclear option"—a treacherous path through federal courts and legislatures where the outcome is anything but clear.
--San Francisco Chronicle, 23 Nov 2000

And this use is preceded by an even older one from the Clinton impeachment proceedings:

On that day the Republicans chose to surrender to the Scolding Tendency, the hectoring voices within their ranks determined to impose an unbending morality on the republic. This is a movement that cares little for public opinion, which continues to soar off the charts in favour of the President. (Impeachment, coupled with war in Iraq, boosted Clinton’s approval rating by 10 points.) It brooks no compromise, dogmatically insisting on the absolute punishment of impeachment even when less nuclear options were available.
--The Guardian, 23 Dec 1998

And from some eight years before the Clinton impeachment debacle, the following use of nuclear option is used in a very different political context:

If the [Endangered Species] act takes effect, the federal government would take control of at least part of the aquifer. Wynne once called that prospect the "nuclear option."
--San Antonio Express-News, 17 June 1990

Despite the fact that Republicans began the use of nuclear option in the current political context, some members of that party don’t like the term, believing that it makes them appear reckless and irresponsible. They prefer the term constitutional option, because they say the Senate has a constitutional responsibility to vote on all judicial nominees:

Supporters of the option, like conservative legal advocate Jay Alan Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice, prefer to call it "the constitutional option." They argue that filibusters aimed at judicial nominations are unconstitutional, and their option would simply restore majority rule on those nominations.
--Boston Globe, 2 June 2003

I guess even using the term nuclear option can be pretty devastating as well.

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