WASHINGTON — Some Senate Democrats resumed calls for the so-called “nuclear option” Thursday after Senate Republicans blocked two presidential nominees.
Republicans have blocked the nomination of Democratic Rep. Mel Watt to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency and the nomination of Patricia Millett to the U.S. Appeals Court for the Washington, D.C. Circuit by voting against cloture, effectively filibustering the nominations.
If invoked, the nuclear option would allow Democrats to push through presidential nominations without any support from Senate Republicans.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell struck a deal in January to avert the nuclear option. In July, the two again negotiated on a “new normal,” in Reid’s words, to streamline the process for confirming presidential nominees. The deal, Reid said at the time, was that “Qualified executive nominees must not be blocked on a procedural supermajority vote.” An exception was made for “extraordinary circumstances.”
But after the Watt and Millett votes, the nuclear option is back on the table, some Democrats have declared.
Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, the president pro tempore of the Senate, threatened such a change after the Watt vote, as the body prepared to vote on Millett’s nomination.
“No argument has been lodged against her [Millett] that drives to the level of an extraordinary circumstance,” Leahy said in a floor speech. ”If the Republican caucus finds … that somehow a filibuster is warranted, I believe this body will have to consider whether a rules change should be in order. If Republican senators are going to hold nominations hostage without consideration of individual merit, we will have drastic measures.”
“I just think we should bite the bullet and change the rules at this point,” Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy told reporters after the votes. “Sen. Reid has been very clear about his priority to end this gridlock on nominations, and I will continue to follow his lead, but I’m going to advocate for us to actually pull the trigger this time.”
Asked if these votes would lead to a rule change, Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown told reporters: “For me it would, if I were making that call myself.”
“I think that support is growing for changing the rules when they play these games with the DC circuit court,” Brown said. “It was all about ideology — this woman [Millett] is obviously so qualified, as Mel Watt is.”
Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley piled on, describing the votes as “an attack on the other branches of government,” and telling reporters: “I’ll certainly be advocating for us to secure in whatever fashion is needed the ability to not do this kind of damage to the other branches of government.”
But, Merkley cautioned, this was a discussion that had not yet taken place in the caucus.
Other Democrats were less enthused at the prospect. Michigan Democratic Sen. Carl Levin said he supported some changes to the filibuster, but that he has never favored the nuclear option.
“If the majority can change rules at any time, there are no rules,” he told reporters.
New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, a member of Senate leadership, was non-committal on the topic.
“Let’s see what happens with the remaining judges,” he told reporters.
Reid, who would take the lead in any rule change, blasted Republicans for blocking the votes, but did not sound too keen on the nuclear option, saying he hoped the gridlock could be solved through “cooperation.”
“I will exercise my right as Majority Leader to reconsider these nominations at some point in the very near future,” he said in a statement. “I hope my Republican colleagues will reconsider their continued run of unprecedented obstructionism. Something has to change, and I hope we can make the changes necessary through cooperation.”
Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who was instrumental in forging the deal in July, warned the majority against invoking the nuclear option in a floor speech before the votes. Such a move, he said, would “destroy the very fabric of the United States Senate.”
“Someday, this [Republican] side of the aisle will be in the majority, and this side of the aisle will feel frustration as we did when we were in the majority because of blockage from the other side of the aisle,” McCain said. “I urge patience on the part of the majority leader.”
A GOP aide brushed off the threat of the nuclear option as “locker room talk,” saying “Democrats are probably a little more reluctant to actually pull the trigger on this than they may let on today or in the heat of the moment.”
But, the aide said, Senate Republicans are frustrated by the threat, which they feel is unfair in light of all the nominees that they have confirmed.
“What good is the Senate advise and consent rule if you’re not able to actually exercise it?” the aide asked.