Do Senate Dems Have the Votes to Go Nuclear?

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 16: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) (C), speaks to the media while flanked by U.S. Sen. Tom Udall (D-CO) (L) and U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), after attending the weekly Senate Democratic policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol July 16, 2013 in Washington, DC. Democrats gathered a the luncheon to discuss their agenda.
National Journal
Michael Catalini and Elahe Izadi
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Michael Catalini Elahe Izadi
Nov. 11, 2013, 4:15 p.m.

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.”

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