By Alexander Bolton - 05/14/13 12:11 AM EDT
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.
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.
Democrats’ anger also boiled over last week when Republicans stalled Gina McCarthy, the president’s choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency, by boycotting a meeting of the Environment and Public Works Committee.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (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 Levin (D-Mich.).
Faced with resistance from his own caucus, Reid struck a deal with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (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 Merkley (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 Pryor (Ark.) and Mary Landrieu (La.) — and three of its seven Republicans — Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (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.