Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell Settle Their Filibuster Feud, for Now

Reid (left) vs. McConnell Illustration by 731; Photographs by Getty Images

Last night, Nevada Senator Dean Heller, a Republican, warned on ABC News that the threat by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to trigger the so-called “nuclear option” to eliminate the filibuster of presidential nominees would touch off a political feud that would be like “the Hatfields and the McCoys on steroids.” This morning, the Hatfields and McCoys called a truce.

The terms of the deal struck between Democrats and Republicans, which was brokered by, um, Sheriff John McCain (R-Ariz.), are highly favorable to the Democrats. Reid will get the votes he desires on the nominations of Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Thomas Perez as Labor Secretary, and Gina McCarthy to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, along with several others. Cordray’s vote is particularly significant, because Republicans had blocked him not because they thought he was unqualified, but because they strenuously objected to the very existence of the CFPB. (Here’s a list of all the GOP senators (PDF) who vowed not to confirm a director without significant reforms to the bureau.) That’s a big win for Reid, even though there was no justification for blocking Cordray in the first place, since the Congress had passed—and the president signed—a law bringing the CFPB into being.

The other significant part of the deal is also a win for Reid, though it’s disguised as a loss. The terms of the accord stipulate that Obama must withdraw his two nominees to the National Labor Relations Board, Richard Griffin and Sharon Block. Both were originally named to their posts as recess appointments, but an appeals court later ruled their appointments were invalid. Forcing Obama to drop them would appear to be a victory for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Republicans—except that, according to news reports, Reid agreed to this provision only if Republicans promise in writing not to oppose whomever Obama replaces them with. In theory, this ought to free up the administration to appoint candidates even friendlier to labor interests than Griffin and Block.

What Republicans gain from the deal is the ability to maintain the filibuster as a procedural weapon against future appointments. Their ability to use it to block judges and legislation was never in jeopardy—a point often missed in the coverage of the dispute.

The big takeaway, it seems to me, isn’t really the finer points as to how the filibuster can be deployed. This was a much smaller battle than all the hyperbole suggested. Rather, it’s that Congress can’t manage to strike even a modest deal on procedural issues without a huge blowout and all the attendant gamesmanship that goes with it. That doesn’t augur well for anyone—especially financial professionals—hoping for a smooth resolution to the much bigger issues that loom this fall: the possibility of a government shutdown in late September when current funding runs out, and the much more serious crisis that will ensue if Congress can’t agree on raising the debt ceiling when that deadline arrives in October or November. As anyone who watches old movies on TMC can attest, the Hatfields and McCoys always go back to feuding.

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