Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell appear to be at a total impasse on whether votes should go forward on several of the president’s executive department nominees. This almost certainly means that Reid will ask the Senate to change the rules on filibusters of some nominees so that a simple majority would be necessary to confirm them, rather than the 60 votes now needed.
The so-called “nuclear option” would radically alter Senate rules.
Unless Republicans permit a number of Obama’s nominees to be confirmed this week, Reid has threatened to change the rules and strip Republicans of their ability to block the president’s picks with procedural roadblocks known as filibuster.
Nominees set for vote on Tuesday include Richard Cordray as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; Gina McCarthy to head of the Environmental Protection Agency; Thomas Perez as labor secretary, and three picks for the National Labor Relations Board.
“I want everyone to hear this. The changes we are making a very, very minimal,” Reid said, sounding as if a final decision had already been made.
“What we are doing is saying, ‘Look American people, shouldn’t President Obama have somebody working for whom he wants?’” Reid said.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell his party was obstructing the process and urged Democrats to reconsider plans for an unprecedented change in Senate rules.
Filibusters have long been part of the Senate’s basic fabric, providing the chamber’s minority leverage to extend debate and force the majority to compromise.
But in the past decade or so, each side, when in the majority, has accused the minority of misusing the filibuster to produce gridlock, not change.
Reid is moving toward abolishing the filibuster only on executive-branch nominees, not on judicial nominees or legislation.
Democrats charge that Republicans have blocked a number of top nominees, not because they are unqualified, but because Republicans oppose the agencies that they would head.
Senate rules state that 67 votes are needed to change its rules. But Democrats, who hold the Senate, 54-46, could do it with just 51 by essentially rewriting the rule book with a procedural power plan known as “the nuclear option.”
Once Democrats switched the threshold on rule changes, they would then reduce to 51 from 60 the number of votes needed to end filibusters on executive-branch nominees.
“The reason they call this the ‘nuclear option’ because it is breaking the rules of the Senate to change the rules of the Senate,” McConnell said in a separate appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
With Senate Democrats and Republicans set to meet privately on Monday to discuss their difference, McConnell urged calm.
“We need to start talking to each other rather than at each other,” said McConnell, who last week said Reid would go down as “the worst Senate leader ever” if he invoked “the nuclear option.”
The Democrats should have no illusions about how reckless this move could be. They are not going to be the majority party forever, and once back in the minority, Republicans could use this precedent to further change the rules — perhaps on judges or even legislation. The Democrats might even be tempted to further alter the filibuster if it suited their purposes.
Has the filibuster been abused? Even if it has, there are other factors to consider besides the mischief and inconvenience it might cause the majority party. In an era when voters are split almost down the middle on most policy choices, the rights of the minority become even more important. A majority that has the ability to silence the minority at will only further polarizes the country. In most cases, Democrats have been unwilling to compromise, or only go through the motions. What reason would they have to even bother compromising now?
Reid is right that the president deserves his own choices to head the departments, but that’s only a small part of this debate. This is about the future and the can of worms Reid will be opening if he is successful in going to the nuclear option.