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Explained: What The Hell Happened In The Senate Today?

Harry Reid went nuclear today. What does that actually mean?

Posted on November 21, 2013, at 2:30 p.m. ET

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Columbia Pictures)

Every now and then for the last few years, Senate Democrats have threatened to "go nuclear" with Senate rules. Today, they did. But since basically no one actually knows what that means, we wanted to explain the process.

What actually happened today?

The Senate changed the rules for how it operates. Before, 60 senators needed to vote to clear presidential nominees. Now, just a simple majority (51 votes) is needed for all nominees — except for the Supreme Court.

So the nuclear option is a rule about votes?

Correct. The nuclear option is changing from supermajority (60 votes) to simple majority requirement on these votes.

Why did the Democrats do this?

For the last few years, Senate Republicans have held up all kinds of nominees from the White House, including a slate of judicial nominees for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and, notably, a number of nominees for the National Labor Relations Board. Basically, the GOP has held up a lot of nominations. Harry Reid and Democrats have railed against all of this for years. So, today, the Senate majority leader chose the nuclear option.

Why is this called going nuclear? That seems like too awesome a term for some Senate rules.

With simple majority votes, the party in the majority (the Democrats) wields the power on nominations; they're able to clear people that might be controversial, for example.

And, this is critical: Judicial nominations are for life. There is no unbelievable lightness of being with this. Once you are a judge, you aren't leaving. Judges keep issuing rulings potentially long after the president who nominated them is out of office.

On the other hand, in this case, the Republicans have wielded the power of the filibuster for a few years to great effect, so it cuts both ways. Not to mention that, in the past, Republicans were the ones who wanted the nuclear option, and it was the Democrats who objected.

Is this going to change anything else in the Senate?

We're getting close to the holidays and the end of the year, so there probably won't be much going on in the Senate. But Republicans could try and hold up legislation as a way to get back at Democrats for changing the rules. They are really angry about this.

Katherine Miller, Kate Nocera, and John Stanton wrote this post.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.