Senate Democrats: Nuclear option for filibuster is back on the table

Senate Democrats frustrated with the GOP’s blocking of a string of President Obama’s nominees are seriously weighing a controversial tactic known as the “nuclear option.” 

The option — which would involve Democrats changing Senate rules through a majority vote to prevent the GOP from using the 60-vote filibuster to block nominations — was raised during a private meeting Wednesday involving about 25 Democratic senators and a group of labor leaders. 


HillTube video: Senate faces filibuster reform


The labor officials demanded that Democrats break the logjam by stripping Republicans of the ability to filibuster. 

“It was not a heated exchange but a strong message was delivered,” said one person who attended the meeting. 

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The labor groups expressed frustration over future nominees to the National Labor Relations Board, as well as Obama’s nomination of Thomas PerezThomas E. PerezClinton’s top five vice presidential picks Government social programs: Triumph of hope over evidence Labor’s 'wasteful spending and mismanagement” at Workers’ Comp MORE as secretary of Labor. 

Democrats’ anger also boiled over last week when Republicans stalled Gina McCarthyGina McCarthyEPA chief: ‘Help is on the way’ for farmers Trump moves to kill Obama water rule Obama EPA chief: Pruitt must uphold ‘law and science’ MORE, the president’s choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency, by boycotting a meeting of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie Sanders'Morning Joe' co-host: We got into Trump's head Petition calls for Melania Trump to move to White House or pay NY security costs In California race, social justice wing of Democrats finally comes of age MORE (I-Vt.), an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, said Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidRepublican failure Senate about to enter 'nuclear option' death spiral Top GOP senator: 'Tragic mistake' if Democrats try to block Gorsuch MORE (D-Nev.) should demand a majority-only vote.

“If we bring this nomination to the floor and there is a request for sixty votes, which we’re not going to get, I think it is time for the Democratic leadership to do what the American people want and that is to have a majority rule in the United States Senate,” Sanders told Democratic members of the panel last week.

“I would then respectfully urge the majority leader to allow 50 votes, 51 votes on the floor to bring forth not only the nomination of Gina McCarthy but other nominations where obstructionism is taking place,” he added.

Reid told a group of Democratic donors at an event hosted by venture capitalist John Doerr in San Francisco in late April that he is seriously mulling another attempt at filibuster reform, according to a person briefed on the meeting.

Reid threatened to use the nuclear option at the start of the year to dramatically curb the minority’s ability to block legislation and nominees but he was undermined by reluctance among senior members of his own party, including Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl LevinCarl LevinSenate about to enter 'nuclear option' death spiral Devin Nunes has jeopardized the oversight role of Congress Ted Cruz wants to destroy the Senate as we know it MORE (D-Mich.).

Faced with resistance from his own caucus, Reid struck a deal with Minority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellThe truth is the latest casualty of today’s brand of politics McCain and Graham: We won't back short-term government funding bill Senate seen as starting point for Trump’s infrastructure plan MORE (R-Ky.) to streamline Senate floor procedures, but many Democrats now see that agreement as ineffective. 

Republicans claim Reid promised not to enact any additional reforms to the chamber’s rules as part of the January deal, but labor and Democratic sources said Reid is considering it again.

“Leader Reid over the last two weeks has talked about this and many other Democrats like Sen. Sanders who have been advocates for reforming the Senate rules,” said Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America, which strongly supports reform.

Cohen said he does not expect Reid to act before the beginning of July, when the Senate is likely to be finished debating comprehensive immigration reform legislation.

“I think the frustration is mounting among members [of the Senate],” said Jamal Raad, a spokesman for Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleyThe Hill’s Whip List: 32 Dems are against Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Dem senator accuses Trump of 'dangerous tilt towards authoritarianism' Overnight Regulation: Dems punch back in fight over CEO pay rule MORE (D-Ore.). “If we continue to see the obstruction we’re seeing on nominees, we may have to address the rules of the Senate again.”

The nuclear option earned its moniker in 2005 when the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), threatened to use it to break filibusters of then-President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees. Democrats at the time warned it would cause a meltdown in bipartisan relations.

The nuclear option was averted eight years ago by a bipartisan deal forged by a group known at the time as the Gang of 14. The group resolved to oppose the nuclear option and support filibusters of judicial nominees only when “extraordinary circumstances” were present.

The agreement worked for a while because the Gang of 14 represented such a large swath of the Senate’s ideological middle. But as members of the group have retired, the standard of extraordinary circumstances has eroded.

Only two of the gang’s seven Democrats — Sens. Mark PryorMark PryorMedicaid rollback looms for GOP senators in 2020 Cotton pitches anti-Democrat message to SC delegation Ex-Sen. Kay Hagan joins lobby firm MORE (Ark.) and Mary LandrieuMary LandrieuMedicaid rollback looms for GOP senators in 2020 Five unanswered questions after Trump's upset victory Pavlich: O’Keefe a true journalist MORE (La.) — and three of its seven Republicans — Sens. Susan CollinsSusan CollinsSenate braces for fallout over Supreme Court fight Overnight Finance: WH wants to slash billions | Border wall funding likely on hold | Wells Fargo to pay 0M over unauthorized accounts | Dems debate revamping consumer board Lawmakers call for pilot program to test for energy sector vulnerabilities MORE (Maine), John McCainJohn McCainMcCain responds to North Korean criticism to calling Kim Jong-un 'crazy fat kid' Overnight Finance: Dems seek probe of acting SEC chief | Defense hawks say they won't back short-term funding | Senate seen as start point for Trump infrastructure plan | Dems want more money for IRS Overnight Defense: Pentagon considers more troops for Afghanistan | McCain, Graham won't back short-term funding | GOP defends Trump rules of engagement MORE (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamOvernight Finance: Dems seek probe of acting SEC chief | Defense hawks say they won't back short-term funding | Senate seen as start point for Trump infrastructure plan | Dems want more money for IRS Overnight Defense: Pentagon considers more troops for Afghanistan | McCain, Graham won't back short-term funding | GOP defends Trump rules of engagement McCain and Graham: We won't back short-term government funding bill MORE (R-S.C.) — are still in the Senate.

Democrats had preferred to make major changes to Senate procedures on the first legislative day of a new Congress, which would have minimized the appearance they were changing the rules in the middle of the game.  

They argue, however, that nothing prevents them from changing the rules in the middle of the Congress, noting that eliminating or reforming the filibuster for executive and judicial nominees is a narrower action than reforming the filibuster rules for legislation and nominees.

Reid changed Senate procedures with a unilateral vote in October 2011 when he and 50 members of his caucus voted to prevent Republicans from forcing votes on amendments after the chamber had voted to move to final passage of a bill.

McConnell protested the maneuver vehemently.

“We are fundamentally turning the Senate into the House,” he cried on the Senate floor. “The minority’s out of business.”

Democrats believe that unilateral change of procedure and Frist’s threat of using the nuclear option to advance Bush’s nominees serve as important precedents.