Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid may move ahead with changing rules on nominations as soon as today in response to Republicans’ blocking three of President Barack Obama’s choices for a federal appeals court.
Reid could bring up the vote on altering procedural rules for the president’s nominations when the chamber meets today, according to a senior Democratic aide who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the timing.
Democratic support for procedural changes has gained momentum this week after a third consecutive Obama nominee for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit fell short of the 60 votes needed to advance. Democrats control 55 of the chamber’s 100 seats.
“We need to do something to allow government to function,” Reid told reporters Nov. 19 after a closed-door meeting of Senate Democrats. “It is incredible.”
Reid, a Nevada Democrat, has vowed in the past to revise rules so that a simple majority of 51 senators would be enough to proceed, a change known as the nuclear option. He has offered no specifics while saying that any revision would be limited to executive branch and lower-court nominations and wouldn’t apply to Supreme Court nominees or legislation.
Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, yesterday made the case on the Senate floor for employing the “nuclear option” to change the rules through a simple majority vote to limit opponents’ power to block nominees.
“It is time to end the block-and-destroy strategy being employed by the minority,” said Merkley.
Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, pressed lawmakers yesterday to oppose any rules change, which he called a “raw exercise of political power,” Bloomberg BNA reported.
A revision would transform the Senate “into an institution where the home team can cheat to win the game,” Alexander said on the Senate floor.
John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, said “back-channel discussions” were held yesterday aimed at averting a showdown over the rules. He said he isn’t a party to the talks and didn’t offer any details.
It takes 60 votes to end the minority-party delaying tactic known as a filibuster, and a change in the rules for ending filibusters wouldn’t be a first. In 1975, senators reduced the number of votes needed to end the obstruction tactic from 67 to the current 60.
A three-month truce between the parties on nominations unraveled amid opposition by Republicans to Obama’s picks for the D.C. Circuit -- often regarded as the nation’s second-highest after the Supreme Court.
On Oct. 31, Republicans blocked confirmation of Washington lawyer Patricia Millett for a vacancy on the court. On Nov. 12, they blocked Georgetown University law professor Nina Pillard’s nomination to another vacancy on the same court. And on Nov. 18, the nomination of U.S. District Judge Robert L. Wilkins fell short of the required 60-vote margin.
Reid also criticized Republicans for moving Oct. 31 to block North Carolina Representative Mel Watt’s nomination to lead the agency that oversees government-chartered mortgage finance companies Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, saying they did so because they oppose the law Congress enacted to regulate financial institutions following the 2008 financial crisis.
Republicans have accused Obama of trying to fill the court -- which often rules on challenges to government regulations -- with nominees sympathetic to his agenda. Democrats say that Republicans are trying to deny Obama the confirmation votes they routinely gave to President George W. Bush.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said in a Nov. 18 floor speech that Democrats were trying to “concoct a crisis” over the D.C. Circuit to “distract Americans from the failings of Obamacare.” Republicans say that the 11-member court’s caseload is insufficient to justify filling three vacancies.
During almost five years in office, Obama has placed only a single judge, Sri Srinivasan, on the D.C. Circuit. Srinivasan was confirmed in May after Obama’s first nominee, Caitlin Halligan, was blocked by Senate Republicans. They objected to Halligan’s work as New York state’s solicitor general on a lawsuit against handgun manufacturers.
Reid said Nov. 19 that he wouldn’t accept anything short of having all of the latest D.C. Circuit nominees approved.
“I insist on getting all three,” he said. “Any president, not just President Obama, Democrat or Republican, needs to be able to have the team that he wants in place.”