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.”