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 McCarthyOvernight Energy: Volkswagen reaches .7B settlement over emissions Volkswagen reaches .7B settlement for emissions cheating Dozens of senators push EPA for higher ethanol mandate 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 SandersThe Trail 2016: Meet and greet and grief Biden spills beans: Sanders will endorse Clinton Why won't Democrats go as far as Clinton did on Israel? MORE (I-Vt.), an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, said Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidOvernight Finance: Obama signs Puerto Rico bill | Trump steps up attacks on trade | Dodd-Frank backers cheer 'too big to fail' decision | New pressure to fill Ex-Im board Iowa poll: Clinton up 14 on Trump, Grassley in tight race with Dem Lynch meeting with Bill Clinton creates firestorm for email case 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 LevinFight for taxpayers draws fire Gun debate shows value of the filibuster House won't vote on Navy ship-naming restrictions MORE (D-Mich.).

Faced with resistance from his own caucus, Reid struck a deal with Minority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellBusiness groups ramp up pressure to fill Ex-Im board Senate Dems: No August break without Zika deal Never Trump plots its last stand 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 MerkleyOvernight Energy: Senate panel backs 0M for global climate fund Senate panel approves 0M for international climate fund The Hill's 12:30 Report 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 PryorEx-Sen. Kay Hagan joins lobby firm Top Democrats are no advocates for DC statehood Ex-Sen. Landrieu joins law and lobby firm MORE (Ark.) and Mary LandrieuMary Landrieu oil is changing the world and Washington Ex-Sen. Kay Hagan joins lobby firm Republican announces bid for Vitter’s seat MORE (La.) — and three of its seven Republicans — Sens. Susan CollinsSusan CollinsThe Trail 2016: Meet and greet and grief Senators press Obama education chief on reforms GOP senator: Trump endorsement could depend on VP MORE (Maine), John McCainJohn McCainWoman pushes Trump to ban Muslims from TSA McCain wants hearings on lifting of military's transgender ban Needed: a presidential candidate that can pass the ‘burning house test' MORE (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamOvernight Defense: US blames ISIS for Turkey attack | Afghan visas in spending bill | Army rolls up its sleeves Senate panel passes bill that would create 4K visas for Afghans Trump: Rivals who don't back me shouldn't be allowed to run for office 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.