What is the Nuclear Option and Will Republicans Use It to Avoid Government Shutdown?

Amid a looming government shutdown, President Donald Trump tweeted to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at the eleventh hour, urging him to "use the Nuclear Option and get it done! Our Country is counting on you!"

The government is headed toward a partial shutdown just before the Christmas holiday after Trump refused on Thursday to sign a bipartisan spending bill the Senate passed the night before. The stopgap legislation, which would have kept the government up and running through February 8, did not include any funding for border security and the president's long-promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Lawmakers now have until midnight Friday to pass a bill the president will sign. But Trump has urging Republican leadership to employ the "nuclear option," which allows the Senate to override the 60-vote rule and pass legislation with only a simple majority.

Right now, Republicans still need at least 10 Democrats to sign off on a bill before it can be passed along to Trump's desk. But if the GOP senators were to use the nuclear option, they would need only 51 senators to approve a bill or, in a worst-case scenario, they would need 50 senators to approve and Vice President Mike Pence to cast the tie-breaking vote. Republicans currently hold a 51 to 49 majority in the upper chamber.

It's not the first time President Trump has urged Republican senators to use the nuclear option. He's suggested it frequently to further his agenda on immigration, health care and the military. Earlier this year, he implored McConnell to change the rules so Republicans could repeal Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act.

In 2017, Senate Republicans "went nuclear" to sidestep a Democratic filibuster and confirm conservative U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

mitch mcconnell gop news conference government shutdown
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, center, speaks as Senator John Thune, left, and Senator Roy Blunt listen during a news conference after a GOP caucus meeting at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Dec. 11. Donald Trump has implored McConnell to invoke the "nuclear option" in the Senate to pass a spending bill with a border wall budget before a government shutdown deadline. Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

But support for the nuclear option is sparse, even among Republican lawmakers. Outgoing Senator Jeff Flake tweeted on Friday that he would not vote to employ the simple majority to get the bill passed.

"The Senate filibuster is the only mechanism left in Washington that brings the parties together," Flake wrote. "Deploying the nuclear option would blow that up. I will not vote to do it."

Republican Senator Orrin Hatch is also against employing the nuclear option. In 2016, Hatch said that he was "one of the biggest advocates for the filibuster. It's the only way to protect the minority, and we've been in the minority a lot more than we've been in the majority."

Shortly after Trump's social media post imploring McConnell to "go nuclear," Hatch's office tweeted the following statement from the senator: "I've long said that eliminating the legislative filibuster would be a mistake. It's what's prevented our country for decades from sliding toward liberalism. It's inconvenient sometimes, but requiring compromise is in the interest of both parties in the long term."

If a spending bill is not passed by Congress and approved by Trump by Friday at midnight, the government will partially shut down. More than 400,000 government employees classified as "essential personnel" would have to remain on the job without pay. Those employees include Secret Service agents, Department of Homeland Security officials, Postal Service employees, air traffic controllers and most employees of the Department of Justice.

Trump has threatened that the government shutdown will "last a very long time" if he does not receive at least $5 billion in funding for his border wall.

"The Democrats, whose votes we need in the Senate, will probably vote against Border Security and the Wall even though they know it is DESPERATELY NEEDED," Trump said in a Friday morning tweet. "If the Dems vote no, there will be a shutdown that will last for a very long time. People don't want Open Borders and Crime!"