Following Success on Immigration, Things May Go 'Nuclear' in Senate

Michael Catalini

The issue of filibuster reform, one version of which is apocalyptically known as the "nuclear option," has Senate Republicans imagining an epitaph for Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

"There have not been many majority leaders in the history of the Senate," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., recently. "I know none of them want to have written on their tombstone, 'He presided over the end of the United States Senate.' "

After clearing a major piece of legislation last week, the Senate's near-term future promises squabbles over the filibuster and nominations. At issue is whether Reid will move to change rules so that nominations will not be subject to procedural votes that require a three-fifths majority, allowing the Senate to move them on a simple majority vote. The issue threatens to dissipate whatever spirit of cooperation was left over after Thursday's bipartisan vote approving a sweeping immigration-reform bill.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is spoiling for the fight, confident his leverage is greater. McConnell made the issue a hallmark of his floor speeches in the week before the immigration bill passed, dedicating his remarks to the subject for three days.

"What do my friends in the majority think 'advise and consent' means?" McConnell asked on the floor. "Apparently they think it means 'sit down and shut up. Do what I say when I tell you to.' "

Republicans don't buy a Democratic suggestion that the rule change could be limited only to nominations, and they eagerly point out that majorities are not permanent.

"Senator Reid's an able and experienced leader," Alexander said. "He knows that if Democrats figure out a way to do anything they want with 51 votes, Republicans can figure that out too, and if we're in charge, we'll do it."

The fight started in part earlier this year. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, proposed effectively removing three seats from the influential D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, a move hailed by conservatives. Democrats, though, argued the proposal was political, designed to strip the power of appointing judges to an influential court from a president Republicans don't like.

Obama joined the debate last month when he nominated three judges for the D.C. Circuit and all but dared the GOP to filibuster his picks.

Since the contentious nomination of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, whom the Senate confirmed in a close 58-41 vote, Obama's Cabinet-level picks have been working their way through the chamber. On Thursday, for example, Anthony Foxx was confirmed as Transportation secretary by a unanimous 100-0 vote.

But there could be trouble ahead. The nomination of Gina McCarthy, the president's pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, faces a hold from Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. Blunt is frustrated with the government's handling of a flood-control project in his state. Blunt has said he will continue his hold "until the government stops arguing with the government." Obama's recess appointment of Richard Cordray as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau also faces an uphill fight in the Senate.

At the same time, Reid has said he will not discuss the so-called nuclear option and suggested the blame lies with Republicans if they hold up nominations.

"The ball is in their court," Reid told reporters early in June. "I'm not going to be talking about it anymore."

Threats to change the Senate's rules on the filibuster are not new. In 2005, then-Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., weighed whether to change the rules to end the filibuster on nominations after George W. Bush's judicial nominees faced confirmation hurdles. Frist didn't go through with it, however, after a bipartisan gang of 14 senators negotiated a truce.

Meanwhile, when the Senate returns after the Fourth of July break, it's expected to consider the nomination of Gregory Phillips to be a judge on the 10th Circuit.