Crucial nuclear option decision arrives for Majority Leader Reid

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid faces one of the biggest decisions of his career this month as he heads for a showdown with Republicans on President Obama’s stalled nominees.

The Nevada Democrat must decide whether to trigger a controversial tactic known as the nuclear option to strip from Republicans the power to endlessly debate presidential nominees.

The maneuver entails changing the Senate’s rules with a simple majority vote, instead of clearing the 67-vote threshold required under the standing rules. 

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Reid will feel out members of his caucus this week on how hard they want to push for Gina McCarthy, Obama’s choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency, and other high-profile nominees, according to a senior Democratic aide.  

Tom Perez, the president’s pick to head the Labor Department, Richard Cordray, the recess-appointed director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), and nominees to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) also hang in the balance.  

“I think we’ll see all these folks put up to for votes and see how the Republicans react,” said an aide to a liberal Democratic senator who supports rules reform. “Are they going to give up-and-down votes to these nominees or not? I think there will be rules changes if they’re not accommodating.”

A senior Democratic aide said Reid would discuss strategy on nominees at a Democratic Caucus meeting either Tuesday or Thursday. The aide predicted the majority leader would likely file a motion to end debate on one of the high-profile nominees at the end of the week. 

The nuclear option strategy is gaining momentum in the Senate in part because of growing pressure from organized labor, which wants Reid to break the impasse over the NLRB. The agency, tasked with enforcing workers’ rights to organize, has just three of its five slots occupied, and the term of Chairman Mark Pearce is due to expire in August. 

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), one of the leaders of the filibuster reform movement, will call for rules changes at the Center for American Progress, a Democratic think tank, Wednesday morning. 

“They’ll talk about how if the Senate doesn’t act soon the NLRB will be rendered inoperable,” said David Madland, director of the American Worker Project at the think tank. “In the middle of August, the NLRB will go down to two members. At that point it will be unable to issue opinions or function in the most reasonable way.”

Another agency hamstrung by the Senate stalemate is the CFPB, which was created by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act. Obama put Cordray in charge through a recess appointment in January of 2012, but a subsequent decision by the D.C. Circuit Court cast “serious doubt,” in the words of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), over whether the move was valid. 

Members of a coalition of outside groups pushing for rules reform say that Reid will trigger the nuclear option if Republicans refuse to allow up-or-down votes on the nominees.

“Next week Harry Reid is expected to start calling for votes on a range of executive branch nominees. I expect if he can’t get cloture, he will ask the Senate parliamentarian for a change in the rules so he can get the executive branch nominees confirmed,” said Nan Aron, president of Alliance for Justice and a member of the Fix the Senate Now coalition. 

The left’s pressure on Reid is clear. Liberals were not pleased with a deal he struck with McConnell on filibusters earlier this year and want action.

Left-leaning pundit, Juan Williams, in his most recent column for The Hill, indicated that Democrats are tired of threats on the nuclear option: “No one is interested in more talk. The question is: What will Reid do?”

Courtney Hight, director of the Democracy Now program at the Sierra Club, said Reid should change the rules if Republicans block an up-or-down vote on McCarthy and other nominees.

“We need to do something to get these folks through,” Hight said. “Hopefully Sen. Reid and others will change rules if we need to see it happen.” 

She noted that McCarthy has worked for five Republican governors. 

The Sierra Club last week began running ads in Arizona and Ohio pressuring Republican senators to support McCarthy.

But a senior Democratic aide said Democratic chairmen are concerned a partisan blowup over rules reform this month could imperil the chances of passing major reauthorization bills, such as the Strengthening America’s Schools Act and the defense authorization bill.

Reid’s biggest obstacle is Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, who is in charge of shepherding the defense bill through the upper chamber. Levin has staunchly opposed meaningful limits to the minority party’s right to filibuster and helped derail reform efforts in January. 

Reid will have to navigate those factional battles in the weeks ahead. 

A senior Democratic aide said speculation about divisions within the caucus have been exaggerated. 

“We feel pretty confident that if Sen. Reid were to move forward on something, he would have the support of his caucus,” said the aide. 

GOP aides say Democrats are straining for an excuse to change the filibuster rules. 

A Republican leadership staffer noted that the Senate has confirmed 1,555 of Obama’s nominees and rejected only four of them. 

The battle over nominees could involve lower-profile picks as well, such as B. Todd Jones, who was tapped by Obama to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Jones is scheduled to come up for a vote in the Judiciary Committee Thursday. 

Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the Democratic whip and a member of the panel, has threatened to push legislation shifting the agency’s functions to the FBI if the bureau remains without a confirmed director. 

The Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing Wednesday on Patricia Millett, the first of three nominees Obama announced last month to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Republicans have vowed to block Millett and two other nominees to the court, which is made up of four Democratic-appointed and four-Republican appointed members. 

Aron, however, said the floor battle over Millett, Cornelia Pillard and Robert Wilkins will likely happen after the August recess.  

The court has jurisdiction over Obama’s regulatory agenda and will have heavy influence over efforts to implement the Dodd-Frank reform law and climate-related regulations.

Another GOP aide said more than 80 percent of Obama’s district and circuit court nominees have received confirmation. 

“The Senate confirmed more district court nominees in the 112th Congress than in each of the previous eight Congresses,” the aide added.