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Senate Republicans Daring Democrats to Go Nuclear

(Photo by AFP/GettyImages)

Don't expect another summit in the Old Senate Chamber to defuse another nuclear standoff in the Senate this fall.

At least, that's the message from a number of Republican senators as the debate heats up again over changing the Senate's rules to weaken the minority's ability to block nominations—the so-called nuclear option.

"This is what I've told my Democrat friends," said Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho. "Do it. Because when we have a Republican president and we've got 55 members of the U.S. Senate or 51, we're gonna be able to repeal Obamacare with a simple majority.

 

Senators are engaging in the nuclear-option fight again since Republicans blocked two nominees last week. The GOP is poised to prevent another judicial nominee when the Senate returns next week and considers Cornelia Pillard to be a judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Republicans expect Pillard will not get the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.

Democratic leadership will not commit to going nuclear.

"I don't think any final decision has been made," said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat. But, he added: "There comes a tipping point." Durbin did not elaborate on what the point would be.

A Senate Democratic leadership aide said that while Democrats had 51 votes to change the rules on executive nominees in July, it's not clear there are 51 votes to change the rules on judicial nominees. The difference, the aide said, is that some groups advocating for abortion rights worry about the implications for a rules change should there be a Republican president and a Republican-controlled Senate.

Still, a familiar group of Democrats, including Sens. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Tom Udall of New Mexico, are calling for a change in the rules.

So far, the issue does not seem to have reached the fevered pitch it did over the summer, with Republican leaders keeping their distance from the discussion.

But rank-and-file GOP senators are issuing a double-dog dare to Democrats.

"At some point you say, 'Just bring it on,' " said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. "I don't think Democrats would want a Republican president putting people on the Supreme Court with 51 votes."

While Democrats suggest changing the rules to affect only executive or perhaps even judicial nominations, Republicans argue that such a change would open the floodgates and pave the way for them to change the rules on legislation as well, if they take back the chamber.

"That kind of breaks the mold, doesn't it?" Risch said. "If you do it on executive nominations—what difference does it make [for legislation]? If you feel so strongly about it that you're willing to break the rules to change the rules, what difference does it make?"

While it was a closed-door meeting in the Old Senate Chamber that seemed to break the logjam in July, Senate Republicans said they knew of no bipartisan behind-the-scenes meetings on avoiding the issue this time.

Asked whether Republicans are actually daring Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to try to change the rules, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who oversees the National Republican Senatorial Committee, thought for a moment.

"Senator Reid and his colleagues just need to decide if they're gonna change the rules or not," Moran responded. "If this is what they're gonna do every time, I don't think we're interested in being intimidated by that."

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