By Alexander Bolton - 05/30/13 09:00 AM EDT
If Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) triggers the nuclear option to break the logjam of President Obama’s nominees, it would be a very close vote.
At the start of the year, Reid did not have the votes to implement the talking filibuster reform, which would have required senators to actively hold the floor to stall action on legislation or nominees.
Members of a liberal coalition pushing for filibuster reform believe Reid could garner the 51 votes needed to change the Senate rules on a party-line vote.
“Reid has 51 votes,” said a liberal advocate for filibuster reform who has met with Democratic senate offices to push for reform.
The source said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) is the member of the caucus most opposed to deploying the nuclear option, while Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) is reluctant over its use.
If accurate, this count would give Reid little room for additional defections.
Other Democrats, such as Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), have been coy on the subject, but they are expected in the end to side with Reid.
A senior Democratic aide pushed back on the notion that outside groups know how the votes now stand on the controversial tactic within the Senate Democratic caucus.
“I am sure they mean well, but there is no way they have a real, accurate whip count,” said the aide.
Dalal Aboulhosn, an advocate at the Sierra Club, said it will be easier to round up votes for changing the filibuster rule for stalled nominees than for reworking the filibuster rule for controversial legislation.
“I think if we narrow it down, we would be able to see more progress than we have on the larger reform even though the larger reform is just as important,” she said. “Going back to the mounting frustration that senators are voicing very publicly, I think they are willing to come to the table and at least discuss the options.”
The Sierra Club is a member of Fix the Senate Now, a coalition of groups lobbying for rules reform in the Senate. The membership includes the Alliance for Justice, the Communications Workers of America, Common Cause and the United Auto Workers.
Members of the coalition have been meeting with Senate Democratic offices to gauge evolving support for filibuster reform.
Reed has signaled he may be warming up to the idea of changing the filibuster rule for nominees.
Republicans have vowed to block the nomination of Richard Cordray as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which falls under Reed’s Banking jurisdiction. Cordray is serving in the post as a recess appointment and will have to step down at the end of the year if not confirmed.
“I think we’ve tried to make some improvements in January, part of it was an understanding that there would be more cooperation — and we haven’t seen that much,” Reed told Politico. “I hope we can get [nominations confirmed] through existing procedures.”
Reid initially planned to bring Cordray to the Senate floor for a vote last week but held off, deciding instead to save a clash over nominees until July, after the Senate debates immigration reform.
Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) revealed in January that Reid did not at the time have enough votes to implement the talking filibuster reform by a party-line vote.
“I would say the talking filibuster at this point does not have 51 votes,” said Durbin said on Jan. 23.
Reid backed off the nuclear option at the start of the year and instead struck a deal with Republicans to streamline Senate floor business.
The Democratic leader now says that agreement has done “virtually nothing to alleviate the obstruction we’ve seen for five months now from the Republicans.”
Democratic aides and liberal groups pushing for filibuster reform say attitudes within the Democratic caucus have changed as frustrations mount over stalled nominees.
In addition to the pledge to block Cordray, Republicans have delayed the nominations of Gina McCarthy to head the Environmental Protection Agency and Tom Perez to serve as secretary of Labor.
Democrats will up their ante in the filibuster reform debate by bringing three of Obama’s yet-to-be-named nominees to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to the floor. Republicans argue the court’s workload is too light to warrant additional judges.
Republicans see Reid’s maneuverings on nominees as intended to bolster support for changing the filibuster rule.
At a press conference last week, Reid stopped short of threatening to use the nuclear option if Republicans did not stop blocking Obama’s executive and judicial branch nominees. But Democrats have done just enough to let Republicans know it’s a real possibility.
Democratic leaders were reluctant to implement a unilateral rules change at the start of the 113th Congress and risk poisoning bipartisan relations at the start of a productive period.
After immigration reform clears the Senate floor, there will be less incentive not to clash with Republicans over the rules.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) last week accused Democrats of fostering a “culture of intimidation.”
— Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) is chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. An earlier version of this story contained incorrect information.