Opinion: Time for Reid to go nuclear

With the July 4 recess over, the fireworks now begin for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. 

In the next month, the Nevada Democrat’s legacy as leader will be set with a decision on the so-called “nuclear option.”

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Will he be the majority leader who allowed the Senate to sink into dysfunction in the face of Republican refusal to allow President Obama to select Cabinet members and judicial nominees? Or is he the majority leader who will be remembered for fighting back against the GOP’s strategy of obstruction through paralysis?

Time is running out for Reid to get any political value from calling for a vote to blow up the current 60-vote requirement to end filibusters. At the end of the month, the August recess will arrive and then comes September and the start of the Congress’ transition to the 2014 campaigns, further draining any remaining momentum from  Obama’s reelection victory.

So, in the next three weeks Reid will have no choice but to take action or accept defeat. Having passed its immigration bill, the Senate now gets back to its failure to confirm the president’s nominee to run the Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy, and his choice for Labor secretary, Thomas Perez. In addition, the president has a nominee to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — Richard Cordray — also waiting for Senate attention.

Last month, Obama forced the political world to look anew at the Senate’s inaction when he named three nominees to vacant seats on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

Republicans are threatening to filibuster any of the president’s nominees to the Court of Appeals on the grounds that the Democrat in the White House wants to gain the upper hand in future court rulings on legislative and regulatory legal fights by having a majority of Democrats on the court. 

The president, who was duly elected and given the power to make the nominations under the Constitution, tried to negotiate with Senate Republicans but got nowhere.

He is now forcing the issue by sending a slate of judicial nominees to the Senate. It is an act of defiance against Republicans in the upper chamber. But it is also a dare to Reid’s leadership.

At the moment, the White House is getting help in ramping up pressure on Reid.

“Senate Republicans flirted with the nuclear option during the Bush administration but abandoned it when the so-called ‘Gang of 14’ senators reached an agreement that judicial nominees could be filibustered only in ‘extraordinary circumstances,’ ” the Los Angeles Times wrote in an editorial last month. “That understanding has obviously collapsed.”

The Times urged Reid to “revive the nuclear option.” The paper argued that the president’s nominees are “entitled to expeditious up-and-down votes.”

USA Today, in an editorial last month, did not go that far, but argued that the Senate leadership has to come up with a deal now to end the paralysis caused by the 60-vote filibuster rule because continued “warfare over judicial nominees will undermine the courts and drive Congress’ abysmal ratings even lower.”

Now the focus is on what Reid will do.

“The Senate majority must act in July,” Larry Cohen, the head of the Communications Workers of America, told The Hill last month. 

Common Cause, a coalition of liberal advocacy groups, added to the pressure on Reid to act by filing a brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C. last month arguing that the current filibuster rule is out of line with the Constitution’s design of majority rule in the Senate. “With the Senate hamstrung by its own rules, we have no choice but to ask the courts to settle this question once and for all,” said Stephen Spaulding, the group’s lawyer.

What has been idle talk about the nuclear option is now at a boiling point, despite concern that Republicans might win a majority in the Senate in 2014 and punish Democrats with a right-wing agenda, including pushing anti-abortion legislation and repealing ObamaCare. 

That fear has been enough to keep Reid’s hands in his pockets. Meanwhile, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has threatened that if Reid forces an end to filibusters he will go down in history as the man who “presided over the end of the United States Senate.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has masterfully used the 60-vote filibuster rule to run out the clock on the president’s second term. He shows no sign of backing down. “What do my friends in the majority think ‘Advise and Consent’ means? Apparently they think it means ‘sit down and shut up,’ ” he said recently.

But the GOP has been so flagrant in advertising its winning obstructionist strategy that Reid is at risk of going into the history books as a feckless leader.

Last month Reid said Republicans have to change their tune on the president’s nominees or deal with the likelihood that he will use the nuclear option: “The ball is in their court. I’m not going to be talking about it anymore.”

No one is interested in more talk. The question is: What will Reid do?

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.