Senate Democrats have markedly shifted their stance on the "nuclear option" issue, with leaders saying more emphatically that they're fed up with Republican filibusters and ready to make a change.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said earlier this week that he's examining a change in the chamber's rules to confirm presidential nominations via a simply majority vote, in order to clear three nominees to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Now leadership is actively counting votes and is "very close" to the 51 needed to change the rules, a Senate Democratic leadership aide said.
"I believe when the leadership decides to act, there will be 51 votes," said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., a leading proponent of changing the rules. "I do think that we're in a completely different universe now, where the principle of voting to block a final vote or not allowing an up-or-down vote simply because you want to deny a president to fill judicial vacancies, as opposed to any concerns over the qualifications of a nominee, has pushed us to the brink."
Indeed, the fight is different this time, as opposed to this summer, when senators cut a deal to avoid going nuclear. That fight was over executive appointments, including recess appointments that faced judicial challenges, which Republicans objected to. This time around, Republicans object to President Obama filling the D.C. Circuit Court with his appointments, arguing that the court's workload is light and it doesn't need more judges.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., one of his party's leading opponents of the nuclear option, said there's a political component for Democrats to consider as well. Vulnerable Democrats facing reelection in 2014 could have to "answer for" the rules change if their votes result in controversial judges joining the court.
"I, for one, am tired of it," said Alexander, who suggested on the floor that going nuclear would be "Obamacare II," because the health law was passed without GOP votes. "I think it's a fake crisis."
Not all Democrats are on board with the move. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., has been a vocal critic against changing the rules.
"I love Carl Levin, OK? He's one of my friends. We're going to miss him so very, very much," Reid said Tuesday. "But the world's not like it was 30 years ago. Different world here."
Support for reforming the rules grew this week with the addition of Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both of California. Boxer told National Journal Daily that Republicans "don't want to give the president his team."
"What changed my mind is the obstructionism that I've seen, day after day, week after week, hour after hour, month after month, year after year from my Republican friends," Boxer said.
Asked whether she feared that the GOP could turn the tables on Democrats if it retakes the majority, Boxer suggested that the bigger concern is not confirming the sidelined judicial nominees now.
"I have to just say that I'm sitting here now — this is my time here — and I'm very willing to give a lot of rights and a lot of leeway to the minority," Boxer said. "I've been in the minority, but it's being abused, and it just can't go on."