Senate GOP to decide filibuster strategy

Greg Nash
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Stinging from Senate Democrats’ gutting of the filibuster, Senate Republicans will use their private caucus lunch Tuesday to decide on their strategy for holding back a string of nominees.

Now that Senate rules prevent the minority party from filibustering administration and judicial nominees, Republicans can’t block Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) from winning confirmation of President Obama’s nominees.

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But they can slow the Senate down and force lawmakers to stay in town until Christmas if they choose to.

Since neither party really wants to be in Washington on Dec. 24, some kind of deal between Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) seems likely.

But on Monday, GOP senators, some of them fresh off a plane from a weekend home, acknowledged that their conference had yet to decide how to deal with the nominees.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), a member of Republican leadership, said simply that GOP senators still needed to hash the issue out. “I don't think we'll probably know until tomorrow afternoon, after our caucus,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) told The Hill.

A possible compromise could involve advancing some of the nominees before the holiday, along with an agreement to take up the rest when the Senate returns at the beginning of January.

Such a deal could be critical, since any nominees pending over the holiday break could be sent back to the White House, which would have to begin the process again from scratch.

Senate rules stipulate that nominees who are not voted on by the Senate by the end of a session must be sent back to the White House. The 113th Congress will enter its second session at the beginning of 2014.

Senators can waive that particular rule by unanimous consent and often do.

But given the ill feelings surrounding the Senate rules change, however, that long-standing convention no longer appears to be a sure bet, and Democrats could feel pressure to push to confirm nominees now absent a bipartisan deal.

Republicans last week dragged out the Senate’s work, forcing the upper chamber into a two-day marathon session beginning Wednesday morning and ending Friday morning.

It’s unclear whether they plan to make the Senate work 24 hours per day again this week.

McConnell did not address how Republicans would handle the nominees in his floor remarks on Monday, focusing instead on ObamaCare.

Reid warned Monday that he was prepared to keep the Senate working until Christmas Eve to complete its workload.

“We have a lot to do. We could complete all our work by Thursday … or by Tuesday, but finish it we must,” he said on the Senate floor. “It’s up to the minority to determine what, if anything, they’re going to stop us from doing.”

Senate Democrats are optimistic they will be able to clear important pieces of remaining business before the holiday and will face less Republican obstruction along the way.

They think Republicans will be less interested in holding up work ahead of a lengthy holiday break.

If the Senate adjourns this week, it would be the first time in years that the upper chamber has taken the full Christmas break off. Usually, it has been working to finish legislation on December 24. Last year, it completed work on the “fiscal cliff” deal of tax hikes and spending cuts on New Year’s Eve.

Reid on Monday identified 11 nominees he wanted to make headway on before the break, in addition to approving a two-year budget deal and the Defense authorization bill.

Without cooperation from Republicans, he warned the Senate “will face another daunting vote schedule.”

Reid has identified Janet Yellen as his top confirmation priority. Yellen would take over as head of the Federal Reserve from Ben Bernanke.

Another high-profile nominee Democrats hope to advance is John Koskinen to serve as the next IRS commissioner. Koskinen cleared a first procedural hurdle on Monday evening, though with the support of only two GOP senators.

Still, Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee have made it clear that they think Koskinen is qualified to take over the troubled agency, which could make it difficult for Republicans to delay his nomination.

At the same time, GOP senators have said that they wanted to hold off on Koskinen’s nomination until the Finance Committee finishes its bipartisan investigation into the IRS targeting, even though the report isn’t expected until next year. The White House wants to see Koskinen in place before next year's tax filing season, according to an administration official.

Republicans have also suggested that Reid’s use of the nuclear option to change the filibuster rules has made them less inclined to go to bat for Democratic nominees. The nuclear option allowed Reid and Democrats to change the filibuster rules with a majority vote.

Grassley, a former Finance panel chairman, said last week that there’s been “a breakdown of the rules and tradition of the Senate that recently culminated in the use of a nuclear option by Majority Leader Reid allowing to infect the workings of even this committee.”