Nuclear option averted as GOP blinks

Senate leaders on Tuesday averted the “nuclear option” and threats of a Republican shutdown of the upper chamber by striking a major deal on executive branch nominees at the eleventh hour.

The agreement gives Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) a major political victory. As a result, Democrats will gain a Senate-confirmed director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and a fully functioning National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), two agencies despised by many Republicans. 

Reid and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) announced the deal after meeting with their caucuses privately, paving the way for quick confirmation of seven of President Obama’s pending nominations. 

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Reid didn’t have to renounce the nuclear option as part of the deal, so he retains his stick to intimidate Republicans into confirming future nominees, such as Janet Napolitano’s successor at the Department of Homeland Security. 

  “They’re not sacrificing their right to filibuster, and we damn sure aren’t filibustering our right to change the rules if necessary, which I’m confident it won’t be, but I want it made very clear,” Reid said. “I’m very encouraged by discussions over the last few days. Both sides understand each other better.”

He declared that the negotiations should establish a “new normal” in the Senate that will allow Obama and future presidents to staff their administrations without excessive delay: “Qualified executive nominees must not be blocked on a procedural supermajority vote.” 

As part of the agreement, Obama will withdraw two nominees to the NLRB, Sharon Block and Richard Griffin Jr., whom he put on the agency with recess appointments in January of last year. But Republicans have agreed to hold votes on two replacement nominees before the August recess.

Obama on Tuesday evening nominated Nancy Schiffer, a former associate general counsel at the AFL-CIO, and Kent Hirozawa, who is the chief counsel to the NLRB chairman.

While Block and Griffin have been cast aside, Democrats will achieve their broader goal: the revival of an agency that had been in limbo since the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated Block and Griffin’s recess appointments. That decision cast a shadow over the board’s actions.

Leaders struck the agreement shortly before the Senate was scheduled to vote on Richard Cordray, Obama’s pick to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Reid had threatened to change the chamber’s rules with a simple majority vote to strip Republicans of the power to filibuster executive branch nominees if they blocked a motion to end debate on Cordray and other nominees. 

The confirmation of Cordray represents a triumph for the White House, Reid and other congressional Democrats. By agreeing to advance his nomination, Republicans basically threw in the towel on their demands for reforming the bureau. 

The Senate voted to end debate on his nomination late Tuesday morning in a 71-29 vote.

“The understanding is that none of our rights will be waived,” McConnell told reporters after discussing the compromise with his conference. “For example, 60-vote thresholds on controversial nominees will still have to be achieved.”

He appeared relieved that Reid has set aside, at least temporarily, the threat of ramming through a rules change through with a simple majority vote. 

“I think it’s a step in the right direction, that the majority has chosen not to exercise the nuclear option. We feel good about that,” he said. 

Reid’s deal with McConnell comes months after the two leaders ironed out an agreement on filibuster reform that was strongly criticized by groups on the left.

Democrats say the compromise largely came together because of the work of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who reached out to Reid over the weekend and met with him again around noon on Monday.

McCain offered to allow a final vote on Cordray and three nominees to the labor relations board if Democrats agreed to swap out Block and Griffin, according to Senate aides. 

Reid initially balked because he was uncertain whether the White House could find two nominees to replace them in short order. Reid endorsed the proposal after he knew that the replacement nominees could be submitted and confirmed before the August recess. 

Democrats say McConnell made a different offer, claiming McCain undercut his leader. 

The Democratic staffer said McConnell agreed to the plan hashed out between Reid and McCain only after it was clear they were about to announce the accord on the Senate floor Tuesday morning. 

McConnell showed up at Reid’s office shortly before the Democratic leader announced the deal on the Senate floor. A senior Democratic aide described it as an impromptu and unannounced visit to push an alternative to McCain’s offer. 

A senior Republican aide flatly denied that description. The GOP source said Reid called McConnell to his office and informed him that the White House could quickly send two new nominees to the Senate, making the deal possible. 

McConnell scoffed at speculation that McCain had undercut his leadership. 

“A lot of senators over the weekend — Sen. McCain among them — were involved in discussions,” he said. “We talked to each other. They were talking to others.”

McConnell said Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.) were also “interested in not giving up on the prospects of working this out.”

Reid heaped praise on McCain as the key deal-maker.

“John McCain is the reason we’re at the point we are. This is all directed toward John McCain from me. No one was able to break through but for him, and he does it at his own peril,” he said.

A senior Republican staffer said the Reid-McCain deal closely resembles the solution McConnell had advocated since the beginning of the year. 

A large group of Senate Republicans, including McConnell, sent a letter to Block and Griffin in January insisting that they step down from the NLRB.

When Reid began to threaten the nuclear option in the late spring, McConnell approached Vice President Biden with a proposal to replace Block and Griffin, according to a senior GOP aide. 

McConnell made his offer public in a speech on the Senate floor last week, the GOP aide noted. 

“If, for instance, you want the Senate to confirm your nominees to the NLRB, then don’t send us nominations that have already been declared illegal by the courts ... if you send us fresh picks, we’ll happily give them a fair hearing,” McConnell said. 

— Published at 10:29 a.m. and last updated at 8:30 p.m.