There is a partisan showdown in the US Senate. Democrats have the votes to filibuster the nomination of Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court, preventing the cloture needed to take up his vote. Will Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as he seems poised to do, use the nuclear option?
Senate politics doesn’t just brim with conflict—it’s also teeming with colorful and unusual vocabulary. Let’s take these terms to the etymological floor.
A showdown is a “decisive confrontation.” We often associate it with gunfights in the Wild West, where the loser is determined by too slow of a draw—and death. The original showdown, however, was at the card table. In the game of Poker, if there is more than one player remaining after all the betting is done, the hand ends in a showdown, when the players lay down their cards, face up, to determine who wins the pot.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds the Poker sense of showdown in a Iowan newspaper in 1873 and cites an earlier verb phrase, to show down (the cards in one’s hand), by 1768. The metaphorical showdown—settling a winner like cards do in Poker—appears by the 1890s.
Through an arcane procedure, the nuclear option, less dramatically known as the constitutional option, allows the Senate to change its rule and allow for a majority vote where 60 was otherwise, and historically has been, required.
Former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid used the nuclear option in 2013 to overcome Republication obstruction, ending filibusters for most judicial nominees and executive appointees—but notably excluding Supreme Court nominees. Now, Mitch McConnell appears poised to trigger the nuclear option for even these highest judges in the land—meaning Judge Neil Gorsuch will only need 51 votes to be confirmed for the Supreme Court.
But why is it called the nuclear option? The term seems to have originated with former Senate Republican Majority Leader Trent Lott in 2003, who weighed similar rules changes to overcome Democratic opposition to George W. Bush appointees. As he told Roll Call that summer: “The Democrats are going to stop this or we are going to have to go nuclear.”
Nuclear weapons are a final and drastic response to an armed conflict—they blow up everything. In the Senate, the nuclear option fundamentally changes the nature of the US Senate and the ability of the minority to stand up to the majority. The OED cites the literal nuclear option in 1962, later applied in political contexts, though not specifically in reference to the Senate procedure until 2003, as we saw.
In legislative assemblies, cloture is a vote that ends debate on an action or bill. In the US Senate, before somethings goes to a final vote, debate has to end—and cloture does this. But filibustering, which we will turn to next, blocks or delays the floor vote. The Senate can then invoke cloture—or, properly, the cloture provisions of Rule 22—to overcome a filibuster and force a vote, if that cloture motion gets 60 votes. This will all change, of course, if McConnell goes nuclear.
Senate rules are complicated, no doubt. But the word cloture isn’t. It simply means “closure” (clôture) in French. It began in the French National Assembly (the lower house of its parliament), where a majority vote can bring debate to an “end” or “close.” The US Senate established the Cloture Rule in 1917, first invoked in 1919 to end debate on the Treaty of Versailles.
The French clôture ultimately comes from the Latin claudere, “to shut, block up, enclose.” Close (verb, adjective, and adverb) and closet also come from claudere, as do claustrophobia and the family of include, exclude, occlude, recluse, and seclude.
In a filibuster, senators prevent action on a bill—or a Supreme Court nomination—by extending debate through long speeches. The etymological path to the form filibuster is as labyrinthine as Senate rules, but the root appears to be the Dutch vrijbuiter, a “privateer,” “pirate,” or “robber.”
Vrijbuiter was directly translated into the English freebooter (1570), another term for a piratical plunderer, as the Dutch joins vrij (meaning and related to “free”) and buit (meaning and related to “booty,” or “loot”).
Vrijbuiter made its way into French as flibustier, altering the r and adding a silent s, and the Spanish filibustero, which inserted the first i. These words specifically referred to 17th-century pirates who pillaged Spanish colonies in the West Indies. In English, filibuster was taken up, from the Spanish filibustero, for outlaw adventurers who tried to seize power in the Caribbean, Central America, and Mexico in the mid-1800s. In this sense, Merriam-Webster finds filibuster in 1848, though earlier iterations include flibutor (OED, 1591) and flibustier (OED, 1792).
The noun and verb filibuster made its way into US politics in the 1850s, though not squarely used of the current Senate practice of filibustering, or “obstructing,” a vote until the 1890s. The idea, so it goes, is that a filibuster “pirates” the time of a Senate and “overthrows” legislative business as usual.