Reid Weighs Senate Rules Change After Nominees Blocked

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he’s weighing a change to the chamber’s rules on handling nominations after Republicans blocked three of President Barack Obama’s choices for a federal appeals court in the past month.

Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said he was “considering looking at the rules” to curb procedural moves used by Republicans to thwart several of Obama’s recent judicial and executive-branch nominees. The vote on altering the rules may occur as soon as tomorrow, according to a senior Democratic aide who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the timing.

“We need to do something to allow government to function,” Reid told reporters yesterday after a closed-door meeting of Senate Democrats. “It is incredible.”

Democratic support for procedural changes 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.

Reid has vowed in the past to change rules so that a simple majority of 51 senators would be enough to proceed. Yesterday, he 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.

‘Nuclear Option’

Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, today made the case on the Senate floor for employing the so-called “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, a chief advocate of the rules change.

Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, said yesterday that such a procedural revision was on the table, Bloomberg BNA reported.

“We’re talking about everything below the Supreme Court,” Manchin said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, criticized changing procedures for nominees as breaking “the rules to change the rules.”

“So far, majorities in both sides over the years have resisted the temptation,” McConnell said.

John Cornyn, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, said “back-channel discussions” were held today aimed at averting a showdown over the rules. He said he isn’t a party to the talks and didn’t offer any details.

Ending Filibuster

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 bipartisan truce on nominations unraveled amid opposition by Republicans including McConnell 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.

‘Tipping Point’

Reid also said yesterday that Republicans on Oct. 31 moved 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 because they oppose the law Congress enacted to regulate financial institutions following the 2008 financial crisis.

With the Wilkins nomination to the D.C. Circuit halted, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy signaled that a “tipping point” may have been reached in the debate over whether rules should be revised.

“After tonight the talk about changing the cloture rules for judicial nominations will no longer be just talk,” Leahy said in a Nov. 18 floor statement. “There will be action.”

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.

‘Concoct’ Crisis

McConnell 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 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 yesterday 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.”

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