Harry Reid Thinks He Can Limit Nuclear Fallout. He Can’t

Unless Senate Republicans budge and agree to give seven of President Obama’s executive nominations a straight up-or-down vote, Harry Reid is going nuclear, changing filibuster rules in a way that could create shockwaves that run up and down Pennsylvania Avenue for a long, long time.

While the Democratic leader says the fallout would be limited, even a targeted strike could have far-reaching impact, and perhaps forever change how presidents pick their nominees.

Right now, the question for any White House choosing Cabinet-level nominees is: What candidate is both ideologically compatible with the president and able to secure support from the other party?

But under the world Reid is poised to create, the question becomes: What candidate will lose a handful only of votes within our own party, a Senate GOP policy aide argued.

The aide, who has experience in presidential personnel decisions, said the change could also dramatically alter bipartisan boards and commissions. For example, Republicans force Democrats to schedule votes on GOP nominees by threatening to block any votes that don’t pair minority and majority candidates. But without the power to block, boards that are designed to be bipartisan could become dominated by the majority party.

“How is any party ever going to get their minority members confirmed to a bipartisan board like the SEC, FTC, or the Amtrak board of directors?” the aide asked, adding that there would be nothing to stop Democratic nominees from dropping their party affiliations, registering as independents or Republicans and being confirmed to serve in a GOP seat.

Reid dismissed concerns about how a filibuster rule change will affect future Cabinets and boards, saying, “I’d actually look at what’s going on today rather than have some hypothetical in the future.”

But, it’s already happening, according to Republicans.

Reid has put three Democratic nominees forward to serve on the National Labor Relations Board, but—because he’s threatening to go nuclear—he has rejected Senate Republicans’ request that the two GOP nominees for that board also get a vote. If approved, the board would have no Republican representation.

(Democrats counter that Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell offered to vote on one Democratic nominee in exchange for the two Republican nominees, a move that Democrats worried might eventually result in a Republican-controlled NLRB.)

To the larger point, Democrats say that bipartisan boards and commissions didn’t suffer in the days before nominees regularly needed 60 votes to clear the Senate.

“There was a fair division … that existed in a time when all those nominees were approved with simple up-or-down votes, without 60 votes. So I think the historical record shows that what you’re describing is unlikely to happen,” said Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson.

Despite GOP warnings of reciprocal treatment should they one day again control the upper chamber, Democrats are primed to go nuclear. Reid laid out his reasoning and issued an ultimatum Monday morning at an event sponsored by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. If Republicans want to avoid the nuke, Reid offered them a "simple solution."

"Let them stop the filibusters on the seven I filed cloture on," he said.

And with Republicans not budging in their opposition to at least three of those nominees, things appear to be headed the way of Doctor Strangelove. 

“I think we’re in the microwave, and all that’s left is for Reid to hit start,” said a senior GOP aide whose boss worked over the weekend to try and break the impasse. “Just doesn’t seem like a lot of movement away from getting nuked. But when these things get stopped, it’s usually at the very last hour.”

The last-ditch effort may come in the form of tonight’s rare bipartisan meeting among Republican and Democratic senators.

But based on the mood going in, it’s probably best to start brushing up on your duck-and-cover skills.