Media adopts false claim that “nuclear option” is a Democratic term

Major media outlets have recently miscast the term “nuclear option” as a creation of Senate Democrats. These include even National Public Radio (NPR), the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times, all of which had previously reported accurately that it was Senate Republicans who originated the term.

As several weblogs have noted, the term “nuclear option” -- referring to the Republican-proposed Senate rule change that would prohibit filibusters of judicial nominations -- was coined by one of its leading advocates, Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS). But since Republican strategists judged the term “nuclear option” to be a liability, they have urged Senate Republicans to adopt the term “constitutional option.” Many in the media have complied with the Senate Republicans' shift in terminology and repeated their attribution of the term “nuclear option” to the Democrats.

Lott himself provided an example of the Republicans' deliberate rhetorical shift on the April 17 edition of ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos, which featured Lott and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) discussing the proposed rule change:

SCHUMER: It goes against the checks and balances.

LOTT: That's why I call it the constitutional option. I went back this very morning and re-read the constitution.

SCHUMER: You once called it the nuclear option.

LOTT: Well, I am given credit for that.

SCHUMER: You are.

LOTT: I'm not sure I want it. I prefer to call it the constitutional option.

Some in the media have noted Lott's creation of the term. NPR legal correspondent Nina Totenberg reported on April 21: “The judicial filibusters have infuriated the White House, leading to the birth of an idea dubbed the nuclear option by former Senate GOP leader Trent Lott, nuclear because it would blow up the Senate.” An article in the March 7 New Yorker reported: “It was understood at once that such a change would be explosive; Senator Trent Lott, the former Majority Leader, came up with 'nuclear option,' and the term stuck.” The Hill quoted Lott using the term in a May 21, 2003, article: "'I'm for the nuclear option,' said Lott. 'The filibuster of federal judges cannot stand.'" And a June 25, 2003, Roll Call article quoted Lott saying of the nuclear option: “I am an advocate of that ... The Democrats are going to stop this or we are going to have to go nuclear.”

CNN host and nationally syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak acknowledged in his April 21 column that the proposed rule change was “unfortunately first self-described by Republicans as the 'nuclear option.'” Some conservatives have in the past readily acknowledged the term's Republican pedigree.

On the December 29, 2004, edition of MSNBC's Scarborough Country, host Joe Scarborough said: “With us now to talk about the president's brinkmanship strategy on judges and whether it's going to lead to what the Republicans are calling the nuclear option are Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner, who serves on the Judiciary Committee and House -- and Republican strategist Jack Burkman.” Fox News host Chris Wallace, speaking to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) on the November 14, 2004, edition of Fox News Sunday, said: “Well, let me ask you about one of them [options available to Republicans concerning judicial filibusters], because some Republicans are talking about what they call the nuclear option, and that would be a ruling that the filibuster of executive nominees is unconstitutional, which would require not 60 or 67 votes but only a simple majority of 51.” Norman J. Ornstein, resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, wrote in a November 28, 2004, Washington Post op-ed: “Senate Republicans have one weapon -- what Majority Leader Bill Frist and his colleagues have called the 'nuclear option,' because it would blow up the current rules requiring a 60-vote 'supermajority' to end a filibuster.”

Until recently, news outlets reporting on the judicial filibuster controversy would correctly note that “nuclear option” was a Republican term:

  • To break the Democrats' filibustering maneuver, Republicans have been threatening what they've called the ''nuclear option'' -- invoking a rare parliamentary maneuver that would declare filibustering judicial nominations to be unconstitutional. [San Jose Mercury News, 2/15/05]
  • Some Republicans have been reluctant to try that maneuver. They call it the nuclear option, because it could come back to haunt them if they are in the minority. [The New York Times, 11/12/04]
  • Now, about that filibuster rule; Republicans are calling it the nuclear option. [Host Jennifer Ludden, NPR's All Things Considered, 11/11/04]
  • If Frist's plan fails, Republicans have been discussing what they have referred to as the “nuclear option.” [Los Angeles Times, 5/10/03]
  • The tactic would be so drastic in the usually congenial Senate that Republicans refer to it as their “nuclear option.” [The Washington Times, 5/7/03]

In spite of these facts, however, various media outlets have recently miscast “nuclear option” as solely a Democratic term, including some cited above who originally attributed it correctly:

  • DAVID WELNA (NPR congressional correspondent): Democrats call a simple majority rules change banning judicial filibuster the “nuclear option,” due to the toxic effect they say it would have on Senate relations. [NPR's Morning Edition, 4/25/05]
  • But Frist made clear that he is still considering an effort to ban filibusters on judicial nominees and smooth the way for a Senate vote on Bush's controversial appointments. Democrats say such an action would be a “nuclear option” that would force them to bring the Senate to a virtual standstill, except for action on national security legislation. [Chicago Tribune, 4/25/05]
  • Now Republicans are considering what Democrats call “the nuclear option” -- a parliamentary move that would end the filibusters and force a vote on the Senate floor. In return, Democrats have vowed to grind Senate business to a halt. [Newsweek, 4/25/05]
  • Democratic groups are asking supporters to counsel their senators against what they call the “nuclear option.” It has become their latest cause for fundraising. [St. Petersburg Times, 4/25/05]
  • In order to get more of President Bush's judicial appointments approved by the Senate, Republicans are threatening what Democrats call “the nuclear option” -- a procedural vote that would deny minority Democrats the right to filibuster. [Charlotte Observer, 4/24/05 (registration required)]
  • Democrats have called this threatened GOP maneuver the “nuclear option” because they say it would destroy a Senate tradition of filibusters. [Chicago Tribune, 4/23/05]
  • ANDREA KOPPEL (CNN State Department correspondent): Now, a potentially historic fight may be on the horizon. Republican leaders are threatening to exercise what Democrats call the nuclear option -- changing the rules so Democrats can't use filibusters to block the nominations. [CNN's Saturday Morning News, 4/23/05]
  • Republicans, who have a 55-member majority, are threatening to lower the threshold for closing debate on all nominations to a simple majority. They say they need only 50 votes plus Vice President Cheney to make the change. Democrats call this the nuclear option, and say they will use other parliamentary rules to bring the Senate to a virtual standstill if Republicans use it. [The New York Times, 4/23/05]
  • Frist is expected to try as early as next week to push the Senate to ban filibusters on judicial nominations -- a move so explosive that Democrats are calling it the “nuclear option.” [Los Angeles Times, 4/22/05]
  • BILL SCHNEIDER (CNN senior political analyst): The Republicans are saying that they want to end the right to filibuster. That is, allow unlimited debate on judicial nominations, which would be a real change in Senate procedure. Democrats are outraged. They call that the nuclear option. And on their part, they're saying, if the Republicans pass that change, which should only take a simple majority vote -- and the Republicans do have a 55 [vote] majority in the Senate -- if the Republicans do that, the Democrats are threatening to shut down the Senate and allow no further business, because they regard it as such a break with the tradition and also a violation of their rights as a minority. [CNN's Live Today, 4/21/05]
  • DAVID WELNA: That's because Democrats intend to filibuster both nominees, a move Republicans warn could prompt them to rule out all judicial filibusters by a simple majority vote. Democrats call that the nuclear option because of the enormous damage they say it would do to relations between the two parties in the Senate. [NPR's All Things Considered, 4/21/05]
  • At a press conference with Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., [Sen. Ken] Salazar [D-CO] said it was wrong for Republicans to end rules that have worked in the U.S. Senate for two centuries. Democrats called that the “nuclear option” because they consider it so drastic. [Scripps Howard News Service, 4/20/05]
  • Amending Rule XXII would effectively abolish the filibuster for judicial nominations. ... Democrats refer to it as the nuclear option because, they argue, it would utterly devastate the Senate. Republicans refer to it by the equally loaded phrase the constitutional option, noting that the Constitution allows the Senate to make its own rules. [, 4/20/05]

As journalist Joshua Micah Marshall noted on his Talking Points Memo weblog, NBC News correspondent Chip Reid went a step further on an April 25 appearance on MSNBC's Imus in the Morning, both misattributing the term “nuclear option” to the Democrats, and then redefining it to mean the Democrats' response to the Republicans' threatened abolishment of the rule change, rather than the rule change itself:

REID: Democrats are saying, “If you're going to do that, then we're going to pull the trigger on what we call the 'nuclear option,' meaning we're going to shut this place [the Senate] down.”