McConnell whipped for Lynch, avoiding nuclear fallout
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) worked quietly to round up more than 60 votes to end a filibuster of attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch, Republican senators say.
After holding up Lynch’s confirmation vote for weeks, McConnell worked to ensure she would overcome a filibuster with a strong bipartisan vote, pitting him against Tea Party firebrand Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and other conservatives.
Some GOP senators say McConnell wanted to avoid a battle over the “nuclear option,” the controversial tactic then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) employed in 2013 to reduce the threshold for ending a filibuster of most executive nominees from 60 votes to a simple majority.
One lawmaker said McConnell quietly talked to colleagues about voting to advance Lynch to a final up-or-down vote.
“He wanted to avoid the conundrum of having to decide whether to overturn the nuclear option,” the GOP senator said.
If the motion to end the filibuster passed with fewer than 60 votes, any senator could have challenged the ruling of the chair allowing debate to be cut short by a simple majority vote.
“It would have taken just one person to object to the ruling of the chair,” the lawmaker added. “It would have been very clumsy.”
“It’s a dicey thing,” said another Republican senator, who added that McConnell had good reason to avoid an open debate on Senate rules.
Twenty Republicans including McConnell and his top two deputies, Whip John Cornyn (Texas) and Conference Chairman John Thune (S.D.), voted to advance Lynch.
The motion to end debate on her nomination passed 66-34 and she won confirmation 56-43.
A senior Republican aide, however, dismissed the theory that McConnell was worried about an impromptu floor fight.
“No one was going to object so it’s moot,” said the aide.
The aide asserted that Lynch had broad support regardless of any possible machinations over Senate procedure, noting her final tally was only a handful of votes short of 60.
Cornyn and Thune, however, voted no on final confirmation.
Another aide said McConnell was less worried about the prospect of an objection and an ensuing debate over the ruling of the chair than he was about publicly validating Reid’s decision to lower the threshold.
“He’s doing this because he does not want to give credence to the Reid position that you ought to be able to get these people confirmed with less than 60 votes,” the aide said.
Senate Republicans remain split over whether to reverse Reid’s action of November 2013 to lower the bar for ending filibusters of executive and judicial branch nominees. It did not affect Supreme Court nominees.
The move infuriated Republicans at the time because Democrats changed an important Senate precedent with a party-line vote. The tactic is known as the nuclear option because it’s considered extremely controversial in the traditionally clubby Senate.
Some Republicans such as Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) want to restore the 60-vote threshold for advancing nominees to final up-or-down votes.
“I think 60 votes for cloture is good on multiple fronts. It shows recognition the president deserves an up-or-down vote on his nominees, in this case the attorney general,” Graham said Tuesday.
But others such as Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah) want to keep it at a simple majority.
“Most of the caucus has come to the conclusion that if we go back to 60 votes when we’re in the majority, when the Democrats get back in we’ll go back to 50,” Grassley said. “You shouldn’t have one rule for Republicans and one for Democrats.”
Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced a resolution in February to codify the lower threshold for ending filibusters for all nominees.
It would have established a tradition of approving all presidential nominees by a simple majority vote but stalled in the face of opposition from fellow Republicans.
“We’re in limbo-land here,” Graham said.
Some GOP senators say McConnell did not want to risk a messy floor fight, in case someone objected to moving Lynch to a final confirmation vote with less than 60 votes.
Cruz scolded his leadership Thursday for allowing her to advance, citing her refusal to state in testimony before Congress that American citizens deserve employment more than illegal immigrants.
“There are more than a few voters back home that are asking what exactly is the difference between a Democratic and Republican majority when the exact same individual gets confirmed as attorney general, promising the exact same lawlessness, what’s the difference?” he said.
A senior Senate aide noted that a senator could have objected to the precedent of ending filibusters with simple majorities regardless of how many votes Lynch received to advance to final consideration.
But such an objection could have more force if Lynch advanced with fewer than 60 votes
“It gives you a data point as to the reason why you raised your point of order,” the aide said.
Reid invoked the nuclear option during a non-debatable post-cloture period. Any would-be Republican objector would have had a parallel situation to protest Reid’s move.