Past Event

Going Nuclear

The Threat to Our System of Checks and Balances

9:00 AM - 12:00 PM EDT

Senate leaders have threatened to invoke the nuclear option to eliminate longstanding Senate rules that require a supermajority vote to end debate on judicial nominees. Critics of the move warn that should this effort succeed, it could permanently impair the ability of the Senate to fulfill its role in our constitutional system of checks and balances, giving the president virtually unchecked power to appoint whomever he pleases. The Center for American Progress has brought together distinguished scholars and public figures to discuss the role of the filibuster in protecting minority rights and providing an effective counterweight to presidential power.


Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-WV) was elected to the Senate in 1958 after serving three terms in the House of Representatives. Continuing his upward trajectory, Senator Byrd became a member of the Senate Leadership in 1967, when he was selected by his colleagues to be Secretary of the Democratic Conference. In 1971, he was chosen Senate Democratic Whip. In 1977, he was elected Democratic Leader by his Democratic colleagues, a position he held for six consecutive terms. For the 12 years he held the position of Democratic Leader — from January 1977 through December 1988 — Senator Byrd served as Senate Majority Leader six years (1977-80, 1987-88) and as Senate Minority Leader six years (1981-86). On two different occasions, Senator Byrd has served as Chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, on which he has held membership since January 1959. Also twice, Senator Byrd unanimously was elected President pro tempore of the Senate, a post that placed him third in line of succession to the Presidency. He was President pro tempore from 1989 through 1994, and again from June 2001 through the end of 2002. Robert Byrd has the distinction of having held more leadership positions in the U.S. Senate than any other Senator of any party in Senate history. He is married to the former Erma Ora James, his high school sweetheart and a coal miner’s daughter.

Professor Michael Gerhardt taught at William and Mary School of Law from 1990-1996 and rejoined the faculty in 1998. He also clerked for Judge Gilbert Merritt, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and Chief Judge Robert McRae, Jr., U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee. Gerhardt practiced law at Miller, Cassidy, Larroca & Lewin in Washington, D.C. and Bondurant, Miller, Hishon & Stephonson in Atlanta. He served as Dean of Case Western University School of Law, taught at Wake Forest University School of Law and was a visiting professor at Cornell and Duke University law schools. Gerhardt also served as Special Consultant to both the White House Counsel’s Office for the Confirmation of Justice Stephen Breyer and the National Commission on Judicial Discipline and Removal. In the summer of 2003, Professor Gerhardt testified before both the Senate Rules and Judiciary Committees on the constitutionality of the filibuster.

Norman J. Ornstein is a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. He also serves as an election analyst for CBS News. In addition, Ornstein writes for USA Today as a member of its Board of Contributors and writes a weekly column called "Congress Inside Out" for Roll Call newspaper. He has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, and other major publications, and regularly appears on television programs like The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Nightline, and Charlie Rose. He serves as Senior Counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission, working to ensure that our institutions of government can be maintained in the event of a terrorist attack on Washington; his efforts in this area are recounted in a profile of him in the June 2003 Atlantic Monthly. His campaign finance working group of scholars and practitioners helped shape the major law, known as McCain/Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. Legal Times referred to him as "a principal drafter of the law" and his role in its design and enactment was profiled in the February 2004 issue of Washington Lawyer. He is also co-directing a multi-year effort, called the Transition to Governing Project, to create a better climate for governing in the era of the permanent campaign. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and the Campaign Legal Center and of the Board of Trustees of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future; Intensive Care: How Congress Shapes Health Policy, both with Thomas E. Mann; and Debt and Taxes: How America Got Into Its Budget Mess and What to Do About It , with John H. Makin.

John Podesta is the President and CEO of the Center for American Progress and visiting Professor of Law at the Georgetown University Law Center. Podesta served as Chief of Staff to President William J. Clinton from October 1998 until January 2001, where he was responsible for directing, managing, and overseeing all policy development, daily operations, Congressional relations, and staff activities of the White House. He coordinated the work of cabinet agencies with a particular emphasis on the development of federal budget and tax policy, and served in the President’s Cabinet and as a Principal on the National Security Council. From 1997 to 1998 he served as both an Assistant to the President and Deputy Chief of Staff. Earlier, from January 1993 to 1995, he was Assistant to the President, Staff Secretary and a Senior Policy Adviser on government information, privacy, telecommunications security and regulatory policy. Podesta previously held a number of positions on Capitol Hill including: Counselor to Democratic Leader Senator Thomas A. Daschle; Chief Counsel for the Senate Agriculture Committee; Chief Minority Counsel for the Senate Judiciary Subcommittees on Patents, Copyrights, and Trademarks; Security and Terrorism; and Regulatory Reform; and Counsel on the Majority Staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Podesta is a graduate of Georgetown University Law Center and Knox College.