Young Democrats Urge Harry Reid to Press Senate Rules Change

Some Senate Democrats are pushing leaders to reconsider rules change.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid listens as Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wa., speaks after the U.S. Senate voted to fund the federal government and raise the debt limit at the U.S. Capitol Oct. 16, 2013 in Washington, DC.
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Since assuming the role of Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., has been to the brink of a historic rules change on more than one occasion.

At each turn, he's pulled back and agreed to an 11th-hour deal, forging ahead while warning the next time he won't be so amiable.

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But here he is again with junior Democrats urging him on.

"I am not that attracted to going through another tortured process to get a temporary deal that goes by the wayside within days or weeks," says Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn. "We should bite the bullet and change the rules."

Some Democrats feel emboldened, irritated with the GOP's most recent moves blocking President Barack Obama's nominees for key positions.

Thursday, Republicans held up nominations of two Obama political appointees. One, Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., to direct the Federal Housing Finance Agency, an unusual snub from senators to a current member of the House of Representatives. The other, Patricia Ann Millett, to fill a vacancy on the D.C. U.S. Court of Appeals.

Republicans argued on the floor of the Senate that was underqualified for the post before they blocked his nomination while accusing Obama of trying to stack the D.C. court with Millett's nomination. As it stands now, the D.C. U.S. Court of Appeals is balanced. Four Democrats and four Republicans serve on the court, but there are three vacancies. Republicans argue that those don't need to be filled because the court handles fewer cases than other appeal courts.

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Many Republicans have begun to rally around a bill to permanently reduce the number of judges from 11 to eight.

"I have concerns regarding filling seats on this court, which clearly has a very low caseload. And I have greater concerns about this President's agenda to stack the court and upset the current makeup, simply in order to obtain favorable judicial outcomes," Sen. Chuck Grassley. R-Iowa, said during a floor speech Thursday.

Reid isn't backing down. Next week, he will push the issue when he brings up Watt's nomination again.

Thursday, Reid said that "something has to change", but he indicated that it would be necessary to forge ahead with Republican "cooperation.

Many of the Democrats pushing for a rules change have never spent time in the minority. Changing the rules,which is possible with a simple majority vote, could have dire consequences down the road for Democrats who may find themselves on the other side of the coin.

"A lot of the pressure for a rules change is coming from the younger senators, senators who have never served in the minority and do not have the acute sense of why the filibuster is so valuable," says Sarah Binder, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution. Lawmakers in the minority have often used the filibuster to hold up legislation or political appointees they don't approve of. To break a filibuster, the majority party needs 60 votes.

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Senate rules allow Reid to deploy the so-called nuclear option, a majority vote that would change the precedent so that Democrats could approve political appointees with a simple majority vote. Democrats inched dangerously close to doing just that in July, but backed away when a bipartisan team of lawmakers hatched out an alternative deal.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., has been among the most outspoken senate traditionalists, urging urged Democrats to resist the desire of "breaking the rules to change them."

Now, however, many old-guard Democrats say they have no other option.

"I've been so frustrated by it," says Sen. Tom Harkin,D-Iowa. "I hope it isn't just a rules fight. I hope it is a rules change."

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