Why the Filibuster Fight Is Front and Center — Again

Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) (C) walks through the Capitol building after holding a press conference regarding continuing attempts to end the government shut down on October 12, 2013.
National Journal
Michael Catalin
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Michael Catalin
Oct. 31, 2013, 4:05 p.m.

Sen­ate Demo­crats are threat­en­ing to de­fang Re­pub­lic­ans’ abil­ity to block pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tions, re­ignit­ing a con­flict over Sen­ate rules that con­sist­ently sparks par­tis­an pas­sions.

“I think more and more people are be­gin­ning to real­ize that a 60-vote Sen­ate means the minor­ity gets to de­cide what hap­pens, and that shouldn’t be,” said Sen. Tom Har­kin, D-Iowa.

Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id has not an­nounced wheth­er he’ll move for­ward with chan­ging Sen­ate rules to al­low a simple ma­jor­ity on ju­di­cial and ex­ec­ut­ive nom­in­a­tions. But a Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic lead­er­ship aide said Re­id won’t take the pos­sib­il­ity off the table, and Pres­id­ent Pro Tem­pore Patrick Leahy of Ver­mont called for a “drastic meas­ure” if nom­in­a­tions were held.

“Re­pub­lic­ans block­ing qual­i­fied nom­in­ees def­in­itely in­creases the chances,” the aide said.

The long-sim­mer­ing fight re­ignited on Thursday when Re­pub­lic­ans blocked a pair of Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion nom­in­ees dur­ing pro­ced­ur­al votes.

The nom­in­a­tion of Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., to head the agency over­see­ing Fan­nie Mae and Fred­die Mac went down on a 56-42 clo­ture vote, and Re­pub­lic­ans also blocked the nom­in­a­tion of Pa­tri­cia Ann Mil­lett to be a Cir­cuit Court judge for the Dis­trict of Columbia by a vote of 55-38.

Watt’s nom­in­a­tion was politi­cized be­cause con­ser­vat­ives, in­clud­ing the Club for Growth, op­posed him, say­ing it would be in­ap­pro­pri­ate for a politi­cian to fill such a role.

“I have said from day one that a tech­no­crat, not a politi­cian, should lead the FHFA, the reg­u­lat­or charged with over­see­ing the $5 tril­lion port­fo­li­os of Fan­nie Mae and Fred­die Mac,” said Sen. Bob Cork­er, R-Tenn.

Re­pub­lic­ans ob­jec­ted to Mil­lett’s nom­in­a­tion, say­ing the court’s case load is light and that Demo­crats want to fill court va­can­cies with Demo­crat­ic ap­pointees who would fa­vor Demo­crat­ic is­sues on the bench.

“Our Demo­crat­ic col­leagues and the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s sup­port­ers have been fairly can­did about it,” said Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell. “They have ad­mit­ted they want to con­trol the court so it will ad­vance the pres­id­ent’s agenda.”

The battle also comes as a bicam­er­al con­fer­ence com­mit­tee works to­ward a Dec. 13 dead­line to pro­duce re­com­mend­a­tions on a budget deal. That mat­ters be­cause mov­ing for­ward with gov­ern­ment fund­ing bills is ef­fect­ively stalled as the com­mit­tee hashes out spend­ing levels.

As the budget dead­lines creep closer, there’s a chance that the Sen­ate will re­con­sider the Watt and Mil­lett nom­in­a­tions, the aide said. Re­id voted no on each of the pro­ced­ur­al roll calls so that he’ll have the abil­ity to re­con­sider the nom­in­a­tions.

The mat­ter of nom­in­a­tions comes months after Sens. Chuck Schu­mer, D-N.Y., and John Mc­Cain, R-Ar­iz., brokered a deal to avoid the “nuc­le­ar op­tion” in Ju­ly. In the last deal, Pres­id­ent Obama agreed to with­draw two Na­tion­al Labor Re­la­tions Board nom­in­ees in ex­change for Re­pub­lic­ans’ per­mit­ting a vote on Richard Cordray as head of the Con­sumer Fin­an­cial Pro­tec­tion Bur­eau.

Some Demo­crats viewed the failed votes on Thursday as a chance to re­vis­it a change in the rules, ar­guing against short-term deals that — in their view — do not solve the big­ger prob­lem.

“I’m not that at­trac­ted to go­ing through an­oth­er tor­tured pro­cess to get a tem­por­ary deal that goes by the way­side with­in days or weeks. I just think we should bite the bul­let and change the rules at this point,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.

Re­pub­lic­ans ar­gue against the nuc­le­ar op­tion, say­ing that chan­ging the rules would come back to haunt Demo­crats should the GOP re­gain the ma­jor­ity in 2014 or bey­ond.

That per­haps ex­plains why some more-ex­per­i­enced Demo­crats hold back when asked wheth­er the Sen­ate should change its rules.

“There comes a tip­ping point,” said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Demo­crat in the Sen­ate. Asked wheth­er the Sen­ate had reached that point this time, Durbin ges­tured to­ward the Mans­field Room just off the Sen­ate floor, where his caucus was meet­ing on Thursday af­ter­noon.

“I’ll find out in here,” he said.

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