One group favoring abortion rights labeled the nuclear option a “dangerous power grab.” Five others said in a statement that they would “oppose any effort to take away the right of any Senator to filibuster now or in the future.”
That was in 2005. Now, with Democrats running the Senate, those groups have largely silenced their criticism of the “nuclear” option, which would change Senate rules and make it harder to filibuster nominations.
But they still fear the nuclear option — and that may have hindered Democrats’ ability to carry it out.
While Democratic senators are again raising the specter of a rule change, it is no longer clear that they have the 51 votes they’ll need to execute such a plan, according to a Democratic leadership aide. Senators point to concerns raised by abortion-rights groups that worry a Republican Senate could one day clear antiabortion judges on a simple majority vote, the aide said.
Indeed, while these groups are keeping a lower profile this time around because Democrats are in charge, the worries that fueled their full-court press against the Republican majority in 2005 remain.
“Our concerns would be that should the power structure flip in the foreseeable future, that conservatives would use women’s reproductive issues as a hammer and a wedge,” said Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress VA. “That’s a very serious concern.”
The current effort in the Senate is led by stalwart reformers like Sens. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Tom Udall of New Mexico, but Majority Leader Harry Reid and Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin have kept a lower profile.
Durbin’s stock line about the nuclear option is that there will be a “tipping point,” but he has yet to specify when that would be. Reid, never shy when it comes to jabbing Republicans, has criticized them for blocking nominations but stopped short of saying he’s made up his mind to go nuclear.
Back in 2005, a number of groups were vocal in advocating against a rules change. Planned Parenthood’s Action Network said at the time that it generated almost 115,000 calls, letters, and petition signatures against the nuclear option. Civil-rights organizations, such as the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, had likewise criticized Republicans for pursuing the measure.
But Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, argues that this fight is different than in 2005.
“We’re operating in a whole different world now. The filibuster was used only a handful of times by Democrats to register opposition to judicial nominees on merit. Now, judicial nominees are being filibustered for an entirely different reason, and that is solely for the purpose of obstruction, regardless of who the nominee is,” Aron said. “This shouldn’t be necessary at all — to call for rules reform — but if Republicans are going to block votes on judicial nominees … to obstruct, then the Democrats have no choice but to call for Senate floor reforms.”
Some advocates believe that Senate Republicans will likely pursue rules changes themselves if they take the majority in the Senate. Indeed, Senate Republicans say they would make such changes if Democrats change the rules now. Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, says his message to Democrats is, “Do it” — in effect daring them to make the rules change.
The issue last came to a head in July, when 98 senators met in the Old Senate Chamber late into the night. The deal that emerged soon after that meeting cleared the way for a handful of President Obama’s nominees.
But that agreement preserved Democrats’ ability to raise the issue again, which is precisely what’s happening in the Senate. Republicans blocked Democratic Rep. Mel Watt of North Carolina to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency and Patricia Millett to sit on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Senate returns after the Veterans Day holiday on Tuesday. Already Republican senators are promising to block Cornelia Pillard, who’s also been appointed to serve on the D.C. Circuit Court.
“The Senate rules aren’t working,” Scholl said. “Instead of being used to protect the rights of the minority, [they’re] being used for petty political games. [But] there are certainly risks inherent in moving forward with the nuclear option.”