A long-threatened fight over the filibuster erupted on Thursday when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., announced a new push to overhaul filibuster rules to make it easier for President Obama and future presidents to fill out their administrations.
Reid accused Senate Republicans of contorting the confirmation process, saying the GOP had turned “advise and consent into deny and obstruct.”
“Presidents deserve the team members they want,” Reid said. “It doesn't matter who's elected” next, he argued, whether it's a Republican, such as Jeb Bush, or a Democrat, such as Joe Biden.
Late Thursday, Reid filed a motion to bring seven stalled nominations, including Richard Cordray as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Gina McCarthy as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, to the floor.
The move sets up a critical procedural showdown as early as next Tuesday. If, as expected, Republicans use their filibuster power to block the confirmations, Reid has threatened to rewrite Senate rules to allow presidential appointments to the executive branch to be confirmed by a simple majority.
Republicans are outraged. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Reid was threatening “one of the most consequential changes to the United States Senate in the history of the institution.” He warned Reid would go down in history as the worst majority leader ever.
“If this isn’t a power grab, I don’t know what a power grab looks like,” McConnell said on the floor. He said that for Reid, “advise and consent means sit down and shut up.” McConnell warned that the Democratic majority “will live to regret” any filibuster changes to the procedure-obsessed institution.
“This Pandora’s box, once opened, will be utilized again and again by future majorities and make the meaningful consensus-building that has served our nation so well a relic—a relic of the past,” McConnell said.
Some Republicans have sought to head off the crisis. Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi came to the floor to ask Republicans and Democrats to skip their traditional partisan lunches next week and instead all meet together. On Monday evening, senators of both parties are now tentatively scheduled to gather in the historic old Senate chambers to discuss the impending rule changes.
The most recent filibuster fight came in January when Reid threatened to change the rules at the beginning of the 113th Congress. That was averted as Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and John McCain, R-Ariz., led a bipartisan push to create new paths for legislation to reach the floor short of actually changing the Senate’s rules.
Reid appeared to be tailoring his current push to change filibuster rules narrowly, demanding only up-or-down simple-majority votes for presidential nominations to the executive branch. He has made no mention of judicial appointments, which would likely be even more explosive.
But the scope of the proposed changes did not matter to McConnell and other Republicans who took to the floor throughout Thursday.
“This is a dangerous, dangerous thing to do,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, one of the Senate’s most tenured members. “If they do this, they are going to rue the day that they did."
McConnell and Reid sparred on the floor for more than an hour Thursday, in what qualified as a heated exchange by Senate standards. They addressed the near-empty chamber, standing 10 feet apart, separated by the aisle that divides their two parties. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., looked on, as tourists shuffled in and out of the chambers.
Reid acknowledged that he had agreed at the beginning of the year not to tinker with filibuster rules, but said more than once on the floor Thursday that “an agreement is a two-way street” and that Republicans had not held up their end of the bargain.
Specifically, he complained that Republicans are holding up nominations not by objecting to the individuals themselves but to the agencies they are nominated to lead—a reference to Cordray. “Republicans are willing to block executive nominations even if they have no objections about the qualifications of the nominee,” Reid said.
In a sign of the political campaign to come, Reid’s official Twitter account fired off a series of tweets during his first speech, each with the hashtag “#EndGridlock.”
Republicans countered that they had yet to block any Cabinet-level nominees, pointing to the recent confirmations for secretaries of Commerce and Treasury by 97-1 and 100-0 tallies.
In addition to Cordray and McCarthy, Reid filed cloture on three nominees to the National Labor Relations Board, Fred Hochberg to serve as president of the Export-Import Bank, and Thomas Perez as secretary of Labor.