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October 9, 2015

‘Nuclear’ Summer for the Senate?

With more chatter that Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., may move forward with changing the Senate’s rules regarding nominations, there’s quite a conversation among Senate process experts about the “nuclear option.”

Under such a plan, Reid would use parliamentary maneuvering to change the rules with a simple majority vote to eliminate the requirement for cloture on nominations (thus allowing confirmation of President Barack Obama’s nominees by a simple majority vote).

Reid plans a Senate test vote before the Memorial Day recess on the nomination of Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Senate Republicans are sure to oppose his confirmation, but they’ll contend that the pace of confirmation of many other nominees is going much more smoothly.

A post at the Monkey Cage blog by Sarah Binder of George Washington University and Brookings followed a post by Jonathan Bernstein at the Washington Post, starting an exchange worth following if you’re interested in the nuances of the “nuclear option.” Binder explained some of Reid’s procedural conundrum:

Over the years, several scenarios have been floated that give us a general outline of how the Senate could reform its cloture rule by majority vote. But a CRS report written in the heat of the failed GOP effort to go nuclear in 2005 points to the complications and uncertainties entailed in using a reform-by-ruling strategy to empower simple majorities to cut off debate on nominations. My sense is that using a nuclear option to restrict the reach of Rule 22 might not be as straight forward as many assume.

Since Binder’s original item, Bernstein has responded and Binder has offered more context as well about the possibility of a midsummer nuclear winter. In his own response posted along with Binder’s latest entry, former longtime Senate aide Richard Arenberg reiterates his long-standing belief that the slope that follows a move to eliminate cloture votes on nominees is just too slippery:

I have long argued … that going outside of the Senate’s (“formal” rules as Sarah calls them) in order to set the precedent that a simple majority (potentially as few as 26 senators) can eliminate the filibuster — even if targeted against filibusters on nominations at first would empower any Senate majority to rewrite the rules at any time, and that a majority would inevitably construct rules that give it near absolute control over amendments and debate like in the House.

Supporters of rules changes are encouraging Reid to move forward, however. The Communications Workers of America sent out a release Monday highlighting the anniversary of the “gang of 14″ agreement that prevented Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., from making a move similar to the one now being contemplated by Reid.

“If Senate Republicans continue to block votes on presidential nominees, the Senate’s Democratic majority has the ability to change the Senate rules on nominations,” the union said in a statement. “Obama’s nominees deserve an up-or-down vote. We don’t need another handshake agreement. It’s time for real change.”

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