Democrats March Closer to Changing Rules of the Senate

Democrats, Republicans face off in Senate rules fight.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, left, and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., are at odds when it comes to the so-called 'nuclear option.'

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, left, and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., are at odds when it comes to the so-called 'nuclear option.'

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., might be teetering on the edge of a rules change to keep Republicans from filibustering executive branch nominees, but not everyone in his caucus is on board. For veterans of the institution, the so-called nuclear option might be politically convenient, but it's lasting effects could put a nail in the coffin of any civility left on Capitol Hill.

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"My position hasn't changed. I opposed it when the Republicans tried it in 2005 and fought against it then, as did most Democrats, when they were trying to jam judges," says Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. "You shouldn't be changing the rules by breaking the rules."

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., signaled he too was unsure he would back such a substantive change.

Democrats argue that since President Barack Obama took office, Republicans have abused the filibuster, using it 44 times to block executive branch nominees. From 1950 until 2008, they contend, it was used 20 times total by minority parties to keep the incumbent president from getting executive branch nominees.

To keep Republicans from filibustering executive appointees, Reid is prepared to use a procedural loophole that allows him to change the rules of the Senate with a simple majority, 51 votes, instead of a two-thirds majority that is typically needed.

Reid and Democratic leaders shriek Republicans are dragging their feet approving Obama's executive nominees – not out of concern the individuals are not qualified –but because they want to keep the president from running his executive branch successfully.

Democratic leaders cite the example of Richard Cordray, who was appointed in January of 2012 to be the Director of the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection.

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"Republicans don't have an ax to grind with the nominees," says Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. "With the agencies they hate the most, their tactic is simply not allow the agency to have a leader."

Republicans have said repeatedly that they are filibustering Cordray for two reasons. First, they want to see the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau restructured before they approve an agency director. Second, they are protesting the fact the president appointed Cordray when the Senate was not technically in recess, something they say is unconstitutional. Nevertheless, Cordray has been serving as the director since his appointment in 2012 as a result of federal rules which dictate a president can make recess appointments, but limits their service to two years without Senate approval. The vote would be to ensure he serves past the January 2014 expiration date of his recess appointment.

Republicans protest any rules changes, arguing since Obama took office, the Senate has confirmed 1,560 presidential nominees for posts and has confirmed every single cabinet nominee that was brought to the floor for a vote in 2013.

Reid is moving forward with his threat, however.

He was leaning toward pulling the trigger on the nuclear option Thursday when he filed cloture on the nominations of seven presidential appointees, a sign he plans to hold vote on Tuesday.

Next week, Senators will vote on Richard Griffin, Sharon Block and Mark Pearce to be members of the national Labor Relations Board; Richard Cordray to be the director of the BCFP, Fred Hochberg to be the president of the Export-Import Bank, Thomas Perez to be the secretary of Labor and Gina McCarthy to be the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

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If Republicans object, all signs point to Reid invoking the nuclear option.

"The gridlock of the Senate has to come to an end," says Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. "The norm is 60-vote origins, filibusters, people looking very closely at their television screens on C-SPAN to see if there is any evidence of life on the floor of the United States Senate. It is unacceptable."

In a last-ditch effort to keep the Democrats from a rules change, Republicans and Democrats are expected to meet at 6 p.m. Monday in a joint caucus meeting to discuss their options.