Reid confident he has the votes to trigger nuclear option in Senate

After days of intense lobbying, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is confident he has enough votes to trigger the nuclear option to change the Senate’s rules.

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Reid needs 50 votes for the controversial tactic, which Republicans say would forever “change the character of the Senate” but Democrats argue is necessary to fix a broken institution.

Reid expects to have at least 51 Democratic votes to prohibit Republicans from filibustering President Obama’s executive-branch nominees. Vice President Joe Biden could provide insurance by presiding over the chamber to break a tie vote.

The standing rules of the Senate require a 67-vote majority to change the rules, but Reid would circumvent that by making a point of order that senators should be prohibited from filibustering executive-branch nominees.

This would clear the way for the Senate to confirm Obama’s most controversial nominees with simple majority votes, including Richard Cordray, the nominee to serve as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and three picks for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

It’s called the nuclear option because it would cause a meltdown in bipartisan relations. Senate Republicans on Thursday threatened to shut the upper chamber down until next year’s election.

Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) warned Reid would be remembered as the “worst leader of the Senate ever” if he moves forward.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) will vote against any point of order Reid raises to change the rules. Sens. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who is facing a tough election next year, and Max Baucus (D-Mont.) are “leaning no”, according to a senior Democratic aide.

Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Tom Carper (D-Del.) are two other swing votes, but Democratic leaders expect them to ultimately support Reid.

Reed has wavered back and forth in recent meetings with advocates pushing for Senate rules reform.

“He was agonizing over it,” said a member of the pro-reform coalition who lobbied him. “I think Jack Reed is now in the right place. Pryor and Baucus are still up in the air.”

Cathy Duvall, the national political director at the Sierra Club, which is a member of the Fix the Senate Now coalition, said some Democratic senators are concerned about possible GOP retribution.

“It’s my understanding there are a number of senators who still have some questions about the process and what the retribution might be,” she said.

She said whether Reid triggers the nuclear option will depend on whether Republicans allow the nominees to reach final votes.

“What happens on Tuesday depends on what Republicans do,” she said. “Will they continue to create unprecedented gridlock on nominations or will they join with Reid to get the Senate to work?”

McConnell has signaled he will allow final votes on two of Obama’s high-profile nominees, Tom Perez, the pick to serve as Labor secretary, and Gina McCarthy, the nominee for administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Republicans have proposed a deal on the National Labor Relations Board that would have Obama submit new names for those positions, according to an aide familiar with the offer. Republicans argue two of the nominees — Richard Griffin and Sharon Block — are tainted because Obama recess-appointed them in January of 2012. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals later invalidated the appointment.

“It seems to me you don’t put people who have gone around the rules into power positions because they’re people who really will not abide by the rules,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). “If they want to pick two others and maybe of the same philosophy, they’d probably get through.”

Reid, however, will not agree to any deal on nominees that leaves out Cordray, who is seen as essential to the functioning of the financial protection bureau, one of the chief reforms of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act.

“Cordray is not coming off the table. Period,” said a senior Democratic aide. “Republicans are trying to appeal to us for a deal on the NLRB guys. I don’t think that they’ve gotten a very receptive reaction.”

Barring filibusters on executive-branch nominees would give Obama greater leeway in appointing Janet Napolitano’s successor as secretary of Homeland Security.

“If Democrats actually do the nuclear option, it would reduce the confirmation process to one party rule,” said John Ashbrook, a spokesman for McConnell, in an e-mail. “President Obama could install controversial nominees with a complicit Democrat majority and no real input from the opposition. The selection of her replacement could be the first test of a scaled back check on the President’s power.”

Republicans warn this could undermine confidence in the implementation of pending immigration reform proposals.

Reid has scheduled a rare joint Democratic-Republican caucus meeting on Monday evening in an eleventh-hour effort to quell the mounting partisan tensions, but Democrats doubt it will yield a result. Republicans requested the bipartisan session.

The Senate will start voting on Tuesday to end debate on seven of Obama’s nominees, beginning with Cordray and then moving to the three nominees to the labor relations board. A senior Democratic aide said seven votes are likely to occur, but some could be delayed until later in the week.

If Republicans block a final vote on Cordray or the labor-board picks, Reid could make a motion to reconsider the vote to end debate on their nominations later in the week. That would give him an opportunity to trigger the nuclear option on Thursday, after procedural time to consider the other nominees has elapsed.

Reid has several procedural options for invoking the nuclear option. As of Friday, he had not decided which one to use, according to an aide.

--This report was updated at 1:47 p.m.