Senate Nears Another Meltdown on Presidential Nominees

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 14: U.S. Senate Minority Whip Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) walks through the Capitol Building on October 14, 2013 in Washington, DC. As Democratic and Republican leaders negotiate an end to the shutdown and a way to raise the debt limit, the White House postponed a planned Monday afternoon meeting with Boehner and other Congressional leaders. The government shutdown is currently in its 14th day. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
National Journal
Michael Catalin
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Michael Catalin
Nov. 6, 2013, 3:28 p.m.

The Sen­ate ap­pears headed for an­oth­er show­down on the so-called “nuc­le­ar op­tion” for chan­ging the rules of the con­firm­a­tion pro­cess to make it harder for the minor­ity party to block pres­id­en­tial ap­point­ments.

With Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id, D-Nev., about to call for a pro­ced­ur­al vote on two nom­in­ees to the U.S. Court of Ap­peals for the D.C. Cir­cuit who are op­posed by Re­pub­lic­ans, some Demo­crats are call­ing for the rules change.

Last week, Re­pub­lic­ans blocked both a nom­in­ee to the D.C. Cir­cuit, Pa­tri­cia Mil­lett, and Pres­id­ent Obama’s choice to lead the Fed­er­al Hous­ing Fin­ance Agency, Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C. This week they are prom­ising to block two more ap­peals court nom­in­ees, Cor­ne­lia Pil­lard and Robert Wilkins, when Re­id brings them up for a vote.

“I’m con­fid­ent we will have the same out­come as the first one,” said Sen­ate Minor­ity Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas. Asked wheth­er the ju­di­cial nom­in­ees could get the 60 votes needed to over­come a fili­buster, Cornyn answered simply, “I don’t be­lieve so.”

The Sen­ate skir­ted the is­sue of how con­firm­a­tion votes are con­duc­ted as re­cently as Ju­ly, when Sens. John Mc­Cain, R-Ar­iz., and Chuck Schu­mer, D-N.Y., hammered out an agree­ment that fore­stalled a change in the rules to al­low ex­ec­ut­ive nom­in­ees to pro­ceed on a simple-ma­jor­ity vote.

But now, the Demo­crats who led the charge to change the rules then are again say­ing enough is enough.

“It’s prob­ably a couple of weeks away here,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. “I think we will come back and re­vis­it this is­sue, con­sist­ent with our con­ver­sa­tion in Ju­ly about the need for the Sen­ate to be able to hold up-or-down votes.”

Re­id, ac­cord­ing to a Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic lead­er­ship aide, has not taken the nuc­le­ar op­tion off the table and re­serves the right to change the rules.

For Re­pub­lic­ans, though, the threats seem to have grown wear­i­some.

“Not only have the Demo­crats got­ten nearly everything they want, but at the same time they have pre­served the op­tion to dangle the threat of the nuc­le­ar op­tion again,” said Beth Lev­ine, a spokes­wo­man for Re­pub­lic­ans on the Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee. “By al­low­ing the threat to con­tin­ue, they have in ef­fect already changed the rules in many in­stances.”

The dis­ad­vant­age for Demo­crats in chan­ging the rules is that they could someday find them­selves in the minor­ity and be un­able to block nom­in­ees they op­pose. Re­pub­lic­ans eagerly point this out when re­but­ting their col­leagues across the aisle.

But some Demo­crats call for the change non­ethe­less.

“I have said for a long time: The Sen­ate is broken,” Sen. Tom Ud­all, D-N.M., said re­cently in a state­ment. “I called for changes in the Sen­ate rules at the be­gin­ning of this Con­gress, but we didn’t do enough. And now we’re right back in the same dys­func­tion­al situ­ation.”

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