In a letter to Frist, Reid said Democrats would cooperate with Republicans only on bills that relate to U.S. troops and ongoing government operations.
“Beyond that we will be reluctant to enter into any consent agreement that facilitates Senate activities, even on routine matters,” Reid wrote.
He added that bipartisan legislation — such as the recently passed class-action bill and bankruptcy reform — would likely stall under the new scenario. “We would decline to provide such cooperation in the future if you implement the nuclear option,” Reid wrote.
If Republicans abandoned the option, however, “I can assure you that Senate Democrats will cooperate with you to consider legislation and nominations.”
The issue is likely to come up tomorrow, when the Senate Judiciary Committee considers the nomination of William G. Myers III, a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals nominee who was previously rejected. Last month, Bush resubmitted a dozen of his first-term federal appeals-court nominees whom the Senate rejected. Myers’s nomination could trigger the nuclear option, which would involve changing the rules to end a filibuster with a simple majority vote rather than with 60 votes.
Democrats insist that Bush’s nominees are too conservative, while Republicans complain that the judges, who would receive lifetime appointments, are not receiving a fair up-or-down vote.
Before a unified Democratic caucus on the Capitol steps, Reid said that all but 10 of Bush’s 214 nominees have been approved, a better record than any president has enjoyed in the past 25 years. By contrast, the Senate failed to vote on more than 60 of President Clinton’s nominees.
“Today, we say to the American people: If you believe in liberty and in limited government, set aside your partisan views and oppose this arrogant abuse of power,” Reid said.
And in the letter, he noted that changing the rules unilaterally “would be an unprecedented abuse of power.”
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said in an interview that he believes at least a half-dozen Republican senators are torn over whether to go along with GOP plans.
“We’re sending a strong signal,” Harkin said. “We understand they can run roughshod over us. We ought to reach out to Republicans who understand this institution and what it means.”
And Harkin said that while Republicans now enjoy the advantages of being in the majority, they would also be on the receiving end of the changes someday.
“You never know when you will find yourself in the minority,” Harkin added.
Trying to appeal to senators’ institutional role as a check and balance on the White House, and saying the change would overturn 200 years of tradition, Reid said the Senate would become simply a rubber stamp for the executive branch.
“I believe a lot of Republicans are as uneasy about this as Democrats,” Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) said in an interview, adding that the role of senators in selecting home-state nominees would be “virtually gone.”
Reid said this is not the first time “presidents and parties have grown drunk with power,” naming Thomas Jefferson and Franklin D. Roosevelt. “They were wrong to try to change our basic American rules” and senators “stood up to tell them so.”
Today at noon, Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) will address MoveOn PAC members about the nuclear option.
Byrd (D-W.Va.), the chamber’s longest-serving member, used the Ides of March anniversary to invoke Julius Caesar’s murder and told The Hill that “freedom of speech in the Senate is about to be assassinated.”
“Let’s don’t let it happen,” he added. “Fight.”
Frist’s office did not return a call for comment by press time.
In a statement, Sen. Elizabeth Dole (N.C.), chairwoman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said, “I simply find it unconscionable that the Democrat Leadership is willing to literally shut down the government in order to placate their left wing special interest groups and deny judicial nominees the courtesy of up or down votes.”