By Alexander Bolton - 02/24/13 11:00 AM EST
Some Senate Democrats think Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) should revisit filibuster reform if Republicans continue to block Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s pick for secretary of Defense.
But some Democrats say Reid still has the option of changing the rules for the 113th Congress and should consider doing so if Republicans continue to hold up what in past years would have been considered routine business.
"I think it really puts in question the sincerity of the leadership on the other side. Are they serious about moving things forward and do we reexamine these reforms?" said Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska).
Begich said Reid could still change the rules with only 51 votes, even though the first session of the 113th Congress is well under way.
"As leader Reid said… that you can still change these rules, you don’t need to on the first day," he added.
Liberal groups and labor unions that pushed Reid to trigger the nuclear option earlier this year were left unsatisfied by the watered-down filibuster reforms he agreed to with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).
Reforming the Senate rules by a simple majority vote is considered so controversial that it is often termed the nuclear option. Reid struck an agreement with McConnell to preserve comity in the upper chamber and help the chances of passing immigration reform and other initiatives.
But some Democrats say Republican efforts to block Hagel call into question that political calculus. The Senate has never used a filibuster to reject a cabinet nominee although it voted down former Sen. John Tower (R-Texas), President H.W. Bush’s nominee to be secretary of defense, in a simple majority vote in 1989.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, sent a letter to colleagues Thursday urging them to prevent Hagel’s nomination from reaching a final up-or-down vote.
“I hope the extra time afforded to review his record has been beneficial and you once again, will join me in voting against cloture,” Inhofe wrote.
The reform package agreed to by Reid and McConnell limited floor time for sub-cabinet level nominees once the Senate had voted to move to a final vote. But it did nothing to safeguard cabinet-level and Supreme Court and appellate court nominees from filibusters.
There are signs, however, that Republican opposition to Hagel is waning. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) announced this past week he would vote for Hagel.
Shelby gives Hagel the 60th vote he needs to advance. GOP Sens. Thad Cochran (Miss.), Susan Collins (Maine), Mike Johanns (Neb.) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) voted to advance his nomination before the Presidents’ Day recess.
George Kohl, senior director at Communications Workers of America, said Reid should reconsider the nuclear option if Republicans continue to block the president’s senior nominees.
"Either he has to pull out the cots and keep everyone in session until we get through it or he'll have to reconsider the rules,” said Kohl.
Kohl noted that Reid suggested he could revisit rules reform, even after striking a deal with McConnell.
"He reserved the right to reconsider the rules if they continue to obstruct," Kohl said. "If they continue to go down that path I think he’ll have to reconsider options he would like not to exercise."
Reid sounded hopeful that the bipartisan rules reform package would speed up the Senate’s pace of business but held out the possibility of future action to limit the power of the minority party to delay bills and nominees.
“It is my hope that these reforms will help restore a spirit of comity and bipartisan cooperation. If these reforms do not do enough to end the gridlock here in Washington, we will consider doing more in the future,” Reid said of the bipartisan reforms.
Democrats who favor more drastic reforms to the filibuster rule — such as requiring members of the minority party to actively hold the Senate floor in order to block legislation — also cite the GOP’s threat to filibuster Richard Cordray, Obama’s pick to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
More than 40 Senate Republicans have signed a letter threatening to block Cordray unless Obama agrees to overhaul the powers of the bureau, which was set up by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform law.
“We have serious concerns about the lack of congressional oversight of the agency and the lack of normal, democratic checks on its sole director,” they wrote.
Republican lawmakers have called for changes to the law that would replace the bureau’s director with a board and subject the agency to more congressional oversight.
A Senate Democratic aide said GOP obstruction of Hagel and Cordray gives Reid reason to revisit filibuster reform.
“Leader Reid was very explicit in his statement after the last filibuster reform debate that he’s willing to revisit the issue,” said the aide. “Extraordinary stunts like the Hagel filibuster can’t happen.
“They won’t confirm Cordray or anyone else unless wholesale changes are made to the agency,” the aide added. “They’re trying to change a major law with 43 votes.”
Republicans argue Reid promised not to use the nuclear option for the rest of the 113th Congress as part of his deal with McConnell.
During a Jan. 24 colloquy, McConnell asked Reid: “I would confirm with the majority leader that the Senate would not consider other resolutions relating to any standing order or rules for this Congress unless they went through the regular order process?”
Reid replied: “That is correct. Any other resolutions related to Senate procedure would be subject to a regular order process including consideration by the Rules Committee.”
A senior Republican aide said: “Sen. Reid said he wouldn’t do it and there are a number of Republicans and Democrats hoping he doesn’t break his word.”