By Alexander Bolton - 07/11/13 07:04 PM EDT
Democrats moved closer Thursday to triggering the nuclear option to change the Senate’s rules after holding a lengthy meeting to discuss President Obama’s stalled nominees.
The decision on whether to proceed with the controversial tactic depends on how votes on stalled nominees play out next week. If Republicans allow several of them to proceed with up-or-down votes, Democrats might have less rhetorical ammo to force a rules change.
Liberal Democrats pushing for a rules change to restrict Republicans from filibustering Obama’s nominees say they are very close to having the 50 votes they need.
Only Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and his deputies know the whip count, and they have kept it secret.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) is one Democrat who has declared his opposition to the nuclear option, because he fears the GOP could use the tactic to ram through legislation curtailing abortion rights or repealing the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
Levin said the meeting did not change his mind.
“My position hasn’t changed. I opposed it when the Republicans tried it in 2005, I fought against it then, as did most Democrats when they were trying to jam judges in 2005, and we stood up against it and said you shouldn’t be changing the rules by breaking the rules,” he said.
Levin declined to say how many Democrats agree with him.
Democratic centrists are leery of the controversial tactic.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said he could see both sides of the issue.
“It was very interesting, let’s put it that way,” he said of the meeting. “I see it from all different angles. There’s still a lot to be said out there.”
Manchin said Democratic leaders are moving forward toward a rules change.
“The majority leader will speak for himself but I think they’re moving forward,” he said.
The nuclear option, so dubbed because it could cause a meltdown in bipartisan relations, entails changing the Senate’s precedents with a simple majority vote sustaining or overturning a ruling of the chair.
Reid signaled to Republicans Thursday morning that he would use it if they continue to filibuster Obama’s nominees.
He disputed Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) argument that he had promised in a colloquy earlier this year not to use the nuclear option after the Senate reached an agreement to streamline business.
Reid has since panned that deal as a failure.
“One look at the Senate’s executive calendar shows that fundamentally nothing has changed since Sen. McConnell and I entered in our supposed agreement,” he said.
Reid noted there are 15 executive branch nominees ready to be confirmed after waiting “more than 260 days,” he said.
McConnell said Thursday he would allow up-or-down votes on Obama’s nominees to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy, and the Labor Department, Tom Perez.
Republicans remain staunchly opposed to Richard Cordray, Obama’s pick to serve as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and his nominees to the National Labor Relations Board.
Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said McConnell’s concession was insufficient.
“Are we supposed to applaud that two of the president’s major nominees after waiting for weeks and facing hundreds of questions are finally going to get a vote? That should be the normal course of events around here,” he said.
Cordray and the NLRB commissioners were recess-appointed to their positions in January of last year.
Reid said he would set up votes to end debate on the nominees next week, setting the stage for a rules change if Republicans continue to block them.
“We’re going to file cloture on a bunch of nominations. And those votes will occur next week when we schedule them,” he said Thursday morning.
Senate Democrats said they could vote on multiple motions to enter executive session Thursday afternoon to begin the process of considering nominees.
Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), an outspoken supporter of a rules change, said Republicans could object to going into executive session, which would require a majority vote to override.
But Don Stewart, a spokesman for McConnell, said that scenario is unlikely. He said he could not a recall the minority ever forcing a vote on going into executive session.