McConnell hopes senators ‘come to our senses,’ avoid nuclear option

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Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) on Sunday said he hopes Republicans and Democrats will strike a last-minute deal to avoid the nuclear option.

Republicans have proposed a rare joint caucus meeting of the two sides to hash out a dispute over President Obama’s controversial nominees, who have waited months for Senate confirmation.

McConnell said he hopes that will persuade Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to back off a plan to change the filibuster rule with a simple-majority vote.

“We have an opportunity to pull back from the brink in this joint meeting that we’re going to have [with] all senators in the Old Senate Chamber Monday night,” he said in an NBC “Meet the Press” interview. “I hope we’ll come to our senses and not change the core of the Senate.”

McConnell said the fight boils down to only three nominees: Richard Cordray, Obama’s pick to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), and his selections to serve on the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

Obama recess-appointed those three nominees in January of last year but the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the move unconstitutional because the Senate was holding periodic ceremonial sessions.

“It really comes down to three appointments that the federal courts have told us were unconstitutionally recess appointed, two members of the NLRB and the CFBP,” he said.

McConnell acknowledged that he supported Republicans, who were then in the majority, using the nuclear option to prevent Democrats from filibustering then-President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees. Senate Democrats had used the filibuster to block five of Bush’s nominees.

McConnell said Republicans were wrong to contemplate the nuclear option nearly eight years ago.

“Look, I’m glad we didn’t do it,” he said. “We went to the brink and we pulled back because cooler heads prevailed.

“We knew it would be a mistake for the long-term future of the Senate and the country,” he added. “That’s what I hope is going to happen here.”

The Senate avoided the nuclear option in 2005 after a group of seven Republicans and seven Democrats known as the Gang of 14 crafted an agreement pledging to allow filibusters of nominees only in the presence of “extraordinary circumstances”.

The standard held up for years but eroded rapidly during Obama’s first term when Republicans filibustered Caitlin Halligan, whom the president nominated to the D.C. Circuit Court, Goodwin Liu, Obama’s choice for the 9th Circuit, and Cordray, who once clerked for conservative Judge Robert Bork.

Republicans did not object to Cordray’s personal qualifications but they demanded reforms to the CFPB in exchange for his confirmation.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who helped negotiate an agreement earlier this year to reform filibuster practices, said Thursday there is no evidence that a new Gang of 14 is poised to emerge to quell the fight.

“Not that I know of,” said Alexander, who expressed hope instead that the Monday joint session would yield progress.

He said leaders may decide afterward to create a “working group” to discuss reforms.

The nuclear option is a procedure that allows Reid to change the Senate’s rules with a simple-majority vote. Under the chamber’s standing rules, 67 votes are required for a change.

Reid used the nuclear option in October of 2011 to prohibit Republicans from forcing votes on amendments after the Senate had moved to final passage of a bill. But Republican parliamentary experts say it has never been used to change one of the major standing rules of the Senate.

If Reid triggers the nuclear option this week, it will only affect executive branch nominees. Judicial nominees and legislation would still have to clear 60-vote hurdles to proceed to final votes.