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Former Senate Majority Leader On Filibuster And Supreme Court Vacancy


The death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg left an open seat on the Supreme Court and reopened the debate over how and whether to fill such a seat in an election year. Democrats changed the rules in 2013 to make it easier to confirm federal court appointees with a simple majority. Republicans did it in 2017 to approve Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, a move so radical at the time it was called the nuclear option. The man who kicked off these changes is on the line with us now, Nevada Democrat and former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Welcome back to the program.

HARRY REID: Glad to be with you.

CORNISH: You've said that you do not regret changing the rules to eliminate the need for 60 votes to end debate over judicial nominations. But since it's paved the way for how Mitch McConnell and the Republican majority are basically steamrolling Democrats in the Senate now, what's your response to Democrats who say you should?

REID: Well, let's look at what happened. Obama was president. He'd been elected by a large majority, but Republicans were filibustering everything. He couldn't get his cabinet officers confirmed, subcabinet. We had the D.C. Circuit, the second most important court in the country - had many vacancies. What were we to do? So that's the reason that I moved to change the rules.

CORNISH: Do you wish you went further?

REID: No, I think I went far enough. As a result of changing the rules, we were able to do things that made Obama's presidency one that history books will look back on and say, gee, he got a lot done. So it was something we needed for the country, and it was the right thing to do.

CORNISH: We are now hearing Democrats calling for a variety of other options to stop a Supreme Court nomination, especially if President Trump fails to be re-elected. For instance, would you support expanding the number of justices that sit on the court?

REID: I believe that this is going to be a change election. I think Trump's going to be badly beaten. We'll have a Democratic president, Democratic House, Democratic Senate. And I think at that time, the president, President Biden, is going to take a look at what he feels should be done.

CORNISH: So does that include, for instance, expanding Senate votes to territories like Puerto Rico or the District of Columbia? That could mean four more senators, potentially Democrats.

REID: I think I'm the wrong person ask that because I've always been in favor of statehood for Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.

CORNISH: Is there anything you think that should be off the table?

REID: No. I think this the time the American people deserve to have committee hearings to look into statehood, to look into whether we should do something to change the makeup of the court, whether it's been done in the past with a simple majority vote. And we should take a look at whether we need to make some changes there also.

CORNISH: Can you help us understand what Democrats should be doing now? The Democratic strategy so far has been to cry hypocrisy, and the Republican response has been, too bad.

REID: I think that to dwell on McConnell and Graham changing their position is a gesture in futility. They've made up their mind what they're going to do, so let's start talking about something more important. And what is more important is moving forward to get more Democratic senators elected. I think that we need to focus on not how bad Trump is but some of the things that we are going to do to make things better.

CORNISH: There is a question about potentially lowering the vote threshold, the filibuster for other issues - right? - beyond the Supreme Court. Former President Obama suggested this in his eulogy for the late John Lewis.


BARACK OBAMA: And if all this takes eliminating the filibuster - another Jim Crow relic - in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that's what we should do.

CORNISH: Should the filibuster go away entirely?

REID: I think the filibuster's time has waned. It's no longer necessary. It's been abused, and we should do away with it.

CORNISH: Why do you think Democrats have been reluctant to do that?

REID: Well, you know, when I decided I was going to change the rule, it didn't happen automatically. I had to go talk to all my senators and make sure we had enough votes. And it was time for a change, and it's even been exacerbated since then with how McConnell's run the Senate. We have no votes on amendments. There's no legislation that comes before the Senate. All the Senate does is vote on judges. And it's - for those of us who have served in the Senate, it is just a shame that the Senate has turned into this body. That's why the filibuster has got to go.

CORNISH: Sen. Harry Reid, thank you so much for speaking with us.

REID: So glad you called. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.