Senate Rules Reform ? the Weekly Recap, May 17, 2013

Washington, DC – Prompted by continued examples of obstruction to nominees, U.S. Senate rules reform is back in the spotlight.

In addition to coverage of obstruction and threats to nominations for the National Labor Relations Board, Environmental Protection Agency nominee Gina McCarty and Department of Labor Nominee Thomas E. Perez, a series of news articles focused directly on whether Senate Majority Leader Reid (D-NV) would revisit reopening rules reform.  

See below for this week’s key developments:

Key Coverage and Analysis:

  • Manu Raju, Politico: “Reid faces growing pressure to overhaul the Senate’s filibuster rules, something that is bound to increase if Obama’s nominees fail to win the 60 votes necessary to overcome threatened GOP stall tactics. Some sectors of the party were disappointed when a filibuster reform movement produced smaller changes at the start of this year. In private conversations with Democratic senators, Reid has not ruled out changing the rules mid-session — potentially via the 51-vote process known as the “nuclear option” — if the president’s nominees are not confirmed, according to several people familiar with the matter. It’s unclear how the rules would be changed, but there’s a push to prohibit filibusters for all presidential-level nominees or force senators to carry out a so-called talking filibuster, rather than simply threaten one on nominations.”
  • Jeremy W. Peters, New York Times: “The threat of further Republican attempts to thwart the president’s ability to assemble his second-term cabinet has increased the likelihood of a fight over the Senate’s rules, which allow the minority party to insist on a 60-vote threshold for almost every Senate action … Democrats say that Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, in recent days has been trying to gauge whether there is sufficient support among Democrats to force a rule change that would limit the filibuster on presidential nominees. He could conceivably try to enact a rule change with a simple majority — a tactic known as “the nuclear option.” Any revisions to Senate rules usually require 67 votes, a threshold that is impossible to obtain without significant Republican support.”
  • Alexander Bolton, The Hill: “Reid told a group of Democratic donors at an event hosted by venture capitalist John Doerr in San Francisco in late April that he is seriously mulling another attempt at filibuster reform, according to a person briefed on the meeting … Democrats had preferred to make major changes to Senate procedures on the first legislative day of a new Congress, which would have minimized the appearance they were changing the rules in the middle of the game. They argue, however, that nothing prevents them from changing the rules in the middle of the Congress, noting that eliminating or reforming the filibuster for executive and judicial nominees is a narrower action than reforming the filibuster rules for legislation and nominees … Democrats believe that unilateral change of procedure and Frist’s threat of using the nuclear option to advance Bush’s nominees serve as important precedents.”

Senate Voices

  • Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), in prepared remarks at the Senate HELP committee hearing on nominations to the NLRB: “the Board is the only place workers can go if they have been treated unfairly and denied the basic protections that the law provides … The Board is just as essential for our nation’s employers … Because this agency is absolutely critical to our country, to our economy, and to our middle class, it is deeply disappointing to see what has happened to the Board in recent years.”
  • Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), in an interview with the New York Times on Senate Republican efforts to block the Perez nomination: “That was just delay for delay’s sake.”
  • Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), in a The Hill report: “If Senator Reid is ready to go for it [amend Senate rules], then so am I … I am frustrated about many things, not just NLRB … I was one of the original [lawmakers to say] let’s change, let’s dramatically change the filibuster rules. I am of the [Utah Sen.] Tom Udall state of thought, which is show up or shut up.”
  • Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), as reported in the New York Times: “The showdown is coming …  And the leadership is very engaged in preparing how to deal with this and how to change this so advise and consent does not become an instrument of destruction.”

Outside Observers and Commentary:

  • Editorial, Washington Post: “Americans elected Barack Obama president, and reelected him. He’s entitled to his Cabinet. It’s possible that Republicans will muster the 41 votes needed in the Senate to block both nominations — despite their strong qualifications and high ethical standards. If they do, Americans will be under no illusions that the GOP has led Washington to new lows of dysfunction.”
  • Editorial, Los Angeles Times: “In requiring the U.S. Senate to confirm presidential appointments, the Constitution aims to ensure a second level of scrutiny of the qualifications of government officials. But Senate Republicans have hijacked the confirmation process, not only to thwart individual nominees but to undermine laws they don't agree with. If they continue in their obstructionism, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) should revisit the possibility of doing away with the filibuster for nominations.”
  • Jonathan Bernstein, Washington Post: “As I’ve said before, the only recourse for the majority — and recall that Democrats enjoy a 55-seat duly elected majority in the Senate — is to threaten to change the rules if Republicans continue, and then carry out that threat with majority-imposed reform to end filibusters on executive branch nominations altogether. But that would be a loss for the Senate if it had to happen. It’s not a bad thing at all to give the minority party a larger role in the process, and filibusters are part of that; but if filibusters become routine instead of used only for those things the minority objects to the strongest, then the majority will have little choice. Yes, I know that in the way Washington works, this kind of routine disruption of normal government procedures doesn’t qualify as a Scandal! But it should. And while it’s quite proper for those concerned about good government to be outraged by the IRS story, this one is a much bigger deal, and the facts of it are plain for all to see — in fact, the people responsible are openly bragging about what they’re doing. Now that’s a scandal.
  • Juliet Lapidos, New York Times: Realistically, the only way Mr. Reid can get Mr. Cordray through the Senate is by changing the rules mid-session, and doing away with the 60-vote requirement to end debate on nominations — i.e. through filibuster reform. Mr. Beutler said Mr. Reid may have “alluded” to that possibility … Allusion or empty threat? Given Mr. Reid’s history of repeatedly mentioning filibuster reform and then going for a toothless gentleman’s agreement instead, the latter seems more likely.
  • Juan Williams, The Hill: The attacks on ObamaCare are of a piece with the Republican strategy of using filibusters to delay and block Obama administration nominees, leaving key posts empty. A quarter of the filibusters in Senate history have been used against Obama’s nominees. The press has largely snickered at the abusive behavior on Capitol Hill. Reporters treat it as predictable rough play between polarized parties. But the Republicans have taken the fight way beyond hardball. The GOP is subverting the legitimate, Constitutional function of the government because its dislikes the liberal policies of a president who has been elected twice by the American people.
  • Ian Millhiser, Think Progress: “Without federal labor law, nothing prevents employers from engaging in the most ruthless purges of unions seen in this country since before the New Deal. And all that Senate Republicans need to do to maintain this status quo is to keep filibustering President Obama’s nominees. Recently, several Senate Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) raised the idea of a second round of filibuster reform to ensure that Senate Republicans do not have the power to unilaterally obstruct nominees. If Reid cannot assemble the 51 votes he needs to enact such reforms, then every Democrat who opposes filibuster reform has likely voted to strip workers of their rights.”

Stat of the Week

“Nominees at all levels of Washington’s bureaucracy — 117 of them in all, including cabinet secretaries, judges and members of obscure oversight boards — are facing delays. Just last week, the Senate confirmed David Medine, the president’s choice to lead the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. The time between his nomination and confirmation was 510 days. Every Republican voted no.”

-          Jeremy W. Peters, New York Times