Senators failed to forge a deal late Monday that would set up a vote on seven of President Obama’s executive nominees, pushing Harry Reid closer to exercising the “nuclear option,” changing filibuster rules in a way that could send shockwaves up and down Pennsylvania Avenue for a long, long time.
While the Democratic leader says the fallout would be limited, even a targeted strike could have far-reaching impact, and perhaps forever change how presidents pick their nominees – and how the Senate functions.
“Once you blow that door open, it’s really hard to go back,” said the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, Sen. John Thune, warning that Republicans could respond in kind when they once again control the upper chamber.
Right now, the basic question for any White House selecting cabinet-level nominees is: what candidate is both ideologically compatible with the president and able to secure support from the other party? But under the world Reid is poised to create, the question becomes: what candidate will only lose a handful of votes within our own party, a Senate GOP policy aide argued.
The aide, who has experience in presidential personnel decisions, said the change could also dramatically alter bipartisan boards and commissions. For example, Republicans force Democrats to schedule votes on GOP nominees by threatening to block any votes that don’t pair the minority and majority candidates. But without the power to block, boards that are designed to be bipartisan could become dominated by the majority party.
“How is any party ever going to get their minority members confirmed to a bipartisan board like the SEC, FTC, or the Amtrak board of directors?” the aide asked, adding that there would be nothing to stop Democratic nominees from dropping their party affiliations, registering as independents or Republicans and being confirmed to serve in a GOP seat.
Reid has dismissed concerns about how a filibuster-rule change will affect future cabinets and boards, saying, “I’d actually look at what’s going on today rather than have some hypothetical in the future.”
But, it’s already happening, according to Republicans.
Reid has put three Democratic nominees forward to serve on the National Labor Relations Board, but -- because he’s threatening to go nuclear – he has rejected Senate Republicans’ request that the two GOP nominees for that board also get a vote. If approved, the board would have no Republican representation.
(Democrats counter that Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell offered to vote on one Democratic nominee in exchange for the two Republican nominees -- a move that Democrats worried might eventually result in a Republican-controlled NLRB.)
To the larger point, Democrats say bipartisan boards and commissions didn’t suffer in the days before nominees regularly needed 60 votes to clear the Senate.
“There was a fair division … that existed in a time when all those nominees were approved with simple up-or-down votes, without 60 votes. So I think the historical record shows that what you’re describing is unlikely to happen,” said Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson.
While Republicans and Democrats emerged from the more than three-hour meeting on Monday night expressing a shared sense that both sides want to avoid the conflict, leaders remain far more circumspect.
“The conversation is going to continue tonight and votes are scheduled at 10:00 in the morning,” Reid said.
Indeed, Republican warnings of reciprocal treatment should they one day again control the Senate have appeared to do little to dent Reid’s willingness to go nuclear.
He is still demanding Republicans agree to vote on all seven nominations for which he’s filed cloture, according to Dick Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat.
“At the end of the day we didn’t come up with a solution,” Durbin said. “The conversation is going to continue.”
Thune echoed Durbin. “I don’t think any votes were changed tonight. … but hopefully between now and tomorrow morning there will be some sort of a breakthrough,” he said.
A senior GOP aide whose boss worked over the weekend to try and break the impasse, put it this way: “We’re in the microwave and all that’s left is for Reid to hit start…But when these things get stopped it’s usually at the very last hour.”
Just in case there is no 11th-hour save, it’s probably best to start brushing up on duck-and-cover skills.