Senate Republicans this week unveiled a fresh tactic in their attempt to punish Majority Leader Harry Reid for changing the rules of the Senate: forcing roll-call votes on procedural questions on nominations. The only problem is, it's not clear if it's working.
By threatening to use all the post-cloture debate time, Republicans hoped to spur Democratic senators to pressure Reid not to keep the Senate in session over the weekend and into Christmas week. Democrats, the thinking goes, don't want to be in session so close to the holidays.
But if there's one lesson Democrats learned throughout the shutdown, it's the value of staying united.
"They know ultimately that we're gonna get it done," said Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin, D-Ill. "We're gonna stick with it till it's done, we're committed to it. We've waited too long to get this going."
Publicly, Reid's still threatening to work into the holiday week.
"We have a lot to do before Christmas, but we can get it done with a little bit of cooperation from Republicans on other issues before us," he said. "If not, we will face another long series of votes that will bring us to the weekend and at least the first part of next week."
In effect, now that Republicans can't block nominations, all they can do is slow down the confirmation process, using up all the debate time after cloture that the rules entitle them to. But it's not clear exactly what Republicans want—short of getting back their power to block nominations, which is not likely to happen.
"It's a tragedy the way the Senate is being run into the ground, by basically one person," said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "And I hope that one of the majority leader's New Year's resolutions is going to be to operate the Senate in quite a different manner."
This week, Reid filed cloture on 10 nominations, including Janet Yellen to serve as chairman of the Federal Reserve. McConnell forced roll-call votes on two of the 10 nominations, specifically the motion to proceed to executive session. In theory, he could have called for votes on all the nominations, but relented.
Behind the scenes aides and even members admit that they're not eager to be here over the weekend and into Christmas week.
Reid himself signaled that a deal to wrap up later this week could be had, saying he's open to considering an agreement that results in the Senate confirming only some of the pending nominees. That would signal that perhaps the Republicans' tactics were gaining a foothold and that running out the clock on nominations could be an effective tool.
But Reid hastened to add that any such deal must also include placing remaining nominations on the calendar for next session rather than sending them back to the president, as would occur at the end of the session. "I would be happy to look at something like that," Reid said, before adding that the Senate would confirm some nominees for sure, including Yellen.
Asked about the wisdom of the GOP approach, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who spearheaded Republican opposition to the rules change, suggested speaking to McConnell. McConnell's office said the leader wouldn't discuss internal strategy.
Durbin offered his own view of the sticking point between parties.
"Part of it is the Republicans want us to go through the pain of the moment—having every roll call and running out every time period," he said. "They want us to go through that because they're very unhappy with the changing of the rule."
That is, of course, an understatement. Republicans are furious that Reid changed the rules.
"He in fact has become the obstructionist-in-chief by cutting off our right to offer amendments, cutting off our right to offer debates, bringing bills to the floor by Rule 14," Alexander said, referring to the rule by which Reid can circumvent the committee process. "He's running the Senate like a one-man show, and we don't like it."
Despite their ability to exploit the clock as their chief means of retaliating, Republicans seem open to finding a way to go home for the holidays and are in talks with Democratic leaders to avoid weekend work.
"It turns out," Durbin said, "as a rule in the Senate, conversation increases as you get later in the week."
This article appears in the December 18, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.