Presidential Nominations Are Still No Slam Dunks
November 25, 2013
Senate Democrats will return to a new Washington next month — one in which Republicans can’t rely on the filibuster to block President Barack Obama’s nominations.
But don’t expect Obama’s picks to sail smoothly through the chamber.
Democrats must still find a modicum of compromise with the GOP if they want to swiftly approve Obama’s team. That’s because the filibuster remains in place as a delay tactic, requiring the Senate to burn hours of floor time unless the two parties can agree to speed up procedural votes.
It’s an important calculation for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who hopes to push through six key Obama nominations in December. Given the time constraints of a December work period, which will last just a few days, he’s going to need help from the GOP to yield time and allow votes to happen more quickly.
A single Republican can easily reject a deal to quickly process nominations. If GOP senators decide to follow that strategy, several of Obama’s nominees could be in limbo until early next year.
Among the key nominations the Senate will consider are three picks for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency, Jeh Johnson to lead the Department of Homeland Security and Janet Yellen to head the Federal Reserve.
For now, top Republicans are holding their fire. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has said this is not a time for “reprisal” in reaction to Reid’s decision to tap the nuclear option and unilaterally change the rules to limit the minority’s ability to filibuster. McConnell indicated that Republican revenge will instead come at the ballot box next November.
But other Republicans warned that they still can make life miserable for Democrats.
“When it’s in our interest to work together with them, we’ll work together with them,” said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, whose deal to avert a rules change by approving one of three stalled judges was spurned by Reid. “When it’s not, we won’t.”
And other Republicans like Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a deal-making Senate veteran, didn’t sound particularly motivated to cooperate with Democrats, calling the rules change “another raw exercise in political power to permit the majority to do whatever it wants, whenever it wants to do it.”
Republicans haven’t decided whether they will use their remaining options in the procedural toolbox to slow down the approval of Obama’s high-profile nominees but are expected to discuss internal party strategy in detail when the Senate returns on Dec. 9, a Republican source said.
By deploying the nuclear option, the Senate can approve most judicial branch and executive branch nominations with just 51 votes instead of the decades-old 60-vote standard. That means the batch of high-profile nominees are almost sure to be approved because of the 55 votes that Democrats control in the Senate.
Given that advantage, Democratic leadership isn’t too worried that the GOP will require the Senate to spend days in mind-numbing quorum calls this winter, a senior aide said. Democrats believe it would be all too easy to point to such tactics as further illustration of the Republicans as obstructionists.
More likely, McConnell indicated, is a continued Republican push to keep the spotlight on the botched Obamacare implementation. Before the rules change, Republicans gleefully pinned Democrats with the health care law’s troubles, and they won’t stop using the Senate floor as an anti-Obamacare microphone.
“I’m not interested in discussing a possible reprisal. I think it’s not been good for the Senate. There’s a lot of nervousness on the Democratic side. They’re in a panic about Obamacare,” McConnell said. “The majority leader is desperately trying to change subject. We want to get back on the subject.”
Even in the hours after the historic rules change, nominal bipartisan cooperation on issues separate from nominees seemed to continue. Senators released joint, aisle-crossing statements pressing for more Iran sanctions; lawmakers seemed bullish on reaching a narrow budget agreement by mid-December; and Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) praised Obama for signing their organ transplant bill.
But GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas warned that a rules change would “poison the well” of the Senate even further in a chamber that has taken fewer than 50 votes, including on amendments, since returning from a five-week recess in September.
Democrats find it hard to believe the Senate can sink any lower into its mire of partisanship.
“Let’s be real: What could [Republicans] do more to slow down the country? What could they do more than what they’ve already done to stop the Senate from legislating?” Reid asked. “They vote together on everything. And it’s only to disparage the president of the United States.”