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Democrats Eye ‘Nuclear Option’ Redux
Posted at 5:14 p.m. on May 20, 2014
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid raised the specter of another “nuclear” rules confrontation with the GOP if Republicans don’t stop their delaying tactics on nominations.
“I’m not interested in changing the rules now. But now is a relative term,” the Nevada Democrat told reporters Tuesday.
A senior Senate Democratic aide said Democrats would “very seriously consider” changes if they retain the majority, including using the “nuclear option” to change the rules on a simple majority vote. Senate rules require a two-thirds majority to change the rules, but Democrats pushed through a rules change last year eliminating the 60-vote threshold for all nominations except those for the Supreme Court. They did so by overturning the ruling of the chairman with a simple majority vote.
Republicans warned that if Democrats tighten their grip on the rules, it would deepen the divide between the parties and change the character of an institution often billed as the world’s greatest deliberative body.
“I think that’d be very unfortunate,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said. Collins said the rules change last year “poisoned the well in the Senate and I cannot imagine wanting to worsen this.”
She suggested instead that Reid restore the 60-vote rule for cloture on nominations.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the previous change was unjustified and subsequent changes would be ill-advised.
“This is a power play,” Graham said. “And if he wants to continue to do this I think he will hurt the Senate and I hope Democrats on their side will understand what this means.”
Reid and his fellow Democrats detonated the nuclear option last year to prevent the minority from filibustering executive and most judicial nominations. That change came after a series of floor speeches building a record of what Reid said was GOP obstruction.
But Democrats kept the cloture process in place — allowing Republicans to chew up time on votes for nominees and on post-cloture time, which can last up to 30 hours per nomination.
Republicans have retaliated by frequently forcing the Senate to burn up the time allotted, even though in many cases the nominees aren’t controversial.
“Republicans are pouting,” Reid said on the floor Tuesday. “They are saying, ‘Aw, they changed the rules to get these judges done so we are going to agree to nothing,’ and they have agreed to nothing, [including] things we used to do just as a matter of fact.”
Reid argued that the Republican obstruction is a political tactic designed to deny Democrats and the President Barack Obama any semblance of a victory.
And Democrats say frustration is growing within the caucus, though there have been no formal discussions yet on changing the rules.
“I understood that there was going to be a hangover from our change on nominations, but I think the Republicans are pressing the patience of those of us who understood that things are going to rocky for a little while,” said Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn. who has supported changing the Senate rules since before being elected in 2012.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said he believes there are more Democrats who back taking action on the filibuster than ever before.
“I do,” Blumenthal said. “And I think the number is growing, and we will probably have some new members [after the midterm elections] that feel as I do that they were sent here to accomplish something.”
The Democratic aide said it was too early to say how they would alter Senate procedure, but the one likely target is requiring post-cloture time to be used for debate or be forfeited.
“It’s called debate time for a reason,” the aide said. “It’s supposed to be used for debate, not to run out the time arbitrarily. Republicans are making a good case for use it or lose it.”
Murphy agreed that the next action would likely be something incremental on post-cloture time, but noted there could be an appetite for something more significant, such as the proposal put forward by Democratic Sens. Tom Udall of New Mexico and Jeff Merkley of Oregon that would have eliminated the ability to filibuster a motion to proceed to legislation and would have required opponents of action to debate the issue on the floor.
Merkley said he expects to bring up his proposal at the beginning of the next session.
“I will do everything I can come January to try to make the Senate work more effectively,” Merkley said. “We need to have a process whereby we can actually get bills on the floor and debate them.”
The Democratic aide said the outcome could depend on how obstructionist the GOP remains the rest of the year.
“The best thing Republicans can do, from a pro-reform perspective, is keep doing what they have been doing,” the aide said.
Niels Lesniewski and Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.