'We Have a New Start': Nuclear Option Threat Ends in Kumbaya Moment

WASHINGTON – Senate Democrats and Republicans reached a last-second agreement on Tuesday that aborted the planned deployment of the so-called “nuclear option” but nothing was achieved that might block the controversial rules change from being implemented in the future.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, vowed to change Senate rules if GOP lawmakers continued to stand in the way of confirming President Obama’s nominees to key administration posts. Reid threatened to prohibit filibusters on White House choices, thus effectively changing the number of votes required for approval of a nominee from 60 to 51.

But after an extraordinary three-and-a-half hour closed-door meeting involving almost every member of the upper chamber on Monday evening, lawmakers reached a compromise eventually brokered by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Republicans agreed not to block a vote to proceed on the confirmation of Richard Cordray to serve as the director of the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. GOP lawmakers kept the commitment, with the Cordray nomination advancing to a final floor vote as the result of a 71-29 tally on Tuesday.

In addition, the GOP is expected to permit votes on Labor secretary nominee Thomas Perez, EPA nominee Gina McCarthy and Export-Import Bank nominee Fred Hochberg to proceed.

In exchange, Reid agreed to pull two White House nominees for the National Labor Relations Board, Richard Griffin and Sharon Block. Two alternative nominees -- Nancy Schiffer, associate general counsel at the AFL-CIO, and Kent Hirozawa, chief counsel to NLRB Chairman Mark Gaston -- are expected to take their place. Republicans have vowed not to filibuster those two choices and it’s expected they will be confirmed before the August recess.

Reid threatened to change the rules noting that Obama, in his fifth year in office, is still encountering problems getting his team together because of Republican obstruction. He expressed confidence that the agreement will mute such tactics and lead to a more cooperative atmosphere.

The purpose of the debate, Reid said, was to “restore the ability of the Senate to function.”

“I’m very encouraged by the discussions we’ve had over the last few days,” Reid said. “Both sides understand each other better. We’ve taken great strides to restore the comity and cooperation that used to define this great institution.”

The Senate, he said, “should be a place where we engage in spirited debate and get things done for the American people. So I’m hopeful and confident this agreement will prove a major step toward achieving that goal.”

But it’s also true there’s nothing in the agreement to prohibit Republicans from filibustering future nominees.

“They’re not sacrificing their right to filibuster and we damn sure aren’t filibustering our right to change the rules if necessary,” Reid said.

Regardless, Reid said he is looking ahead.

“Does that mean it will last forever? I don’t know about that,” he said. “But we have a good feeling with the Democrats and the Republicans. We have a new start for this body and I feel very comfortable with it. I couldn’t be happier.”

Republicans were more muted in their assessment of the agreement, insisting they got what they wanted by forcing Obama to withdraw his two NLRB nominees. Both were initially installed and were already serving on the board as recess appointments, which allowed them to serve until the end of the 113th Congress. But Republicans objected, maintaining the Senate wasn’t in recess when the appointments were made, rendering them unconstitutional, and they balked when Democrats tried to get them empaneled through a more traditional means.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, said he told Vice President Joe Biden some days ago that the withdrawal of the Griffin and Block nominations could result in a solution to what he called the “threatened blowup.”

“The 60-vote threshold on controversial nominees will still have to be achieved,” McConnell said. “So in a sense that’s the regular way that we handle business here in the Senate. And we’re pleased that the majority decided not to exercise the nuclear option. We think that’s in the best interests of the institution.”

Negotiations, McConnell said, led to “a constructive outcome and an opportunity to get back to normal.”

“So I think that crisis has been averted,” he said. “We still will be dealing with controversial nominees in the way controversial nominees inevitably produce -- a great debate. And all the options that are available to the minority remain intact.”

Like Reid, McConnell said he hopes a new spirit will prevail in the upper chamber.

“I think I’m safe in saying a high level of collegiality on a bipartisan basis was achieved as a result of last night,” he said. “And you can pick at it if you want to but I think it was an important moment for the Senate.”

“Put this down as progress in the right direction and the best possible atmosphere to go into the balance of the year where we have much tougher issues to deal with down the road,” he said.

Sen. John Cornyn, of Texas, the Senate Republican whip, expressed satisfaction that the administration would withdraw the NLRB nominations and that “the White House decided to take the nuclear trigger out of Sen. Reid’s hand.”

The chamber, Cornyn said, can now “pivot back to the people’s business and deal with the things that my constituents and I think people around the country are most concerned about” – issues like economic growth, unemployment and Obamacare.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), a freshman who served as one of the most vocal advocates for deploying the nuclear option, nonetheless said he was pleased with Tuesday’s result, calling it “a significant moment in ending the deep freeze and putting us back onto a functional path to take on the challenges that America expects us to address.”

President Obama’s press secretary Jay Carney said the administration will be “glad to see a resolution that results in the speedy confirmation of the president’s qualified nominees to these positions that have been at issue.” He added that the White House was not involved in the negotiations.

“The White House provided information and answered questions when it came to working with Senate Republicans, including, of course, Sen. McCain, who, again, as I understand it, based on what we've seen, deserves significant credit for his efforts in trying to find a resolution here -- a resolution that allows for hopefully the speedy confirmation of the president’s nominees,” Carney said.