WASHINGTON – The future of the Senate filibuster – and of three Obama administration appointees from Buffalo whose nominations have been stalled by that age-old delaying tactic – hung in the balance Thursday as Democrats moved toward changing Senate rules to get those controversial nominations and four others past the recalcitrant Republican minority.
Threatening to deploy what’s long been called “the nuclear option,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Democrats would move next week to change Senate rules to curtail the use of the filibuster if Republicans did not let those nominations go forward.
Reid, who had long opposed changing the filibuster rules, said Democrats would have no choice but to move to restrict the use of the delaying tactic on nominations if Republicans continued to block confirmation votes.
“We want to break the gridlock and make Washington work,” Reid said, arguing that the Obama administration appointees had encountered “unprecedented obstruction.”
Republicans, meanwhile, were aghast that Democrats would even consider changing a Senate tradition that GOP and Democratic minorities alike have used to block nominees they don’t like.
“This is about manufacturing a pretext for a power grab,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. He warned that if Democrats vote to change Senate rules to curtail the filibuster, “they will live to regret it.”
At the center of the controversy is Thomas E. Perez, a Buffalo native nominated to serve as labor secretary. Also at stake is President Obama’s nomination of Mark Gaston Pearce, a Buffalo lawyer, to continue as head of the National Labor Relations Board, as well as the nomination of Buffalo-born lawyer Richard F. Griffin Jr. to serve on the NLRB.
Hoping to break the logjam, Reid filed motions to allow votes on those three nominees to move forward. Similarly, he filed motions aimed at getting the Senate moving on Obama’s choices to head the Environmental Protection Agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Import-Export Bank, as well as a third NLRB appointee.
Because of the Senate’s filibuster rules, all seven of those nominations would require 60 votes to move forward – difficult to accomplish in a body with 52 Democrats, 46 Republicans and two independents who caucus with the Democrats.
But Reid indicated that if Republicans do not let the nominations proceed to a simple majority vote, he will move next week to change the Senate rules so that the filibuster could no longer be used on confirmation votes.
The filibuster – and its 60-vote requirement to proceed to Senate business – does not apply to votes on changes in Senate rules, meaning the Democrats can shrink the filibuster on a party-line vote.
Even many Democrats who had long been reluctant to do that, such as New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer, appeared Thursday to be ready to act to counter what they see as Republican obstructionism.
“A new tactic has been introduced, to try to paralyze the executive branch the way they’ve paralyzed the legislative branches, because they don’t want the government to function,” Schumer said.
Democrats noted that between 1949 and 2009, there were 20 filibusters aimed at blocking executive-branch appointees – but that there have been 16 such filibusters since Obama took office in 2009.
But Republicans countered with statistics of their own. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, noted that the Senate has approved 1,560 of Obama’s nominees and totally blocked only four.
“It’s hard to understand where this sense of outrage and urgency comes from,” Cornyn said. “This is a manufactured crisis with no grounding in objective reality.”
In reality, it’s a crisis grounded in the GOP’s various objections to the seven Obama nominations in question.
Perez has been lauded by labor and even the state Chamber of Commerce in Maryland, where he served as labor secretary. But McConnell called him “a liberal ideologue.”
Meanwhile, Republicans object to Griffin and Sharon Block, another National Labor Relations Board appointee, because Obama first named them to their posts as “recess appointments” when the Senate wasn’t at work. A federal appeals court has since ruled their appointment to be illegal, meaning they have no business being confirmed, McConnell said.
“The question is, do we respect the law?” the Republican leader added.
In response, Reid noted that there was a good reason for Obama to appoint Griffin and Block the way he did.
“He did recess appointments because Republicans blocked them,” Reid said. “Blocked them, blocked them, blocked them.”
In contrast, Pearce was already confirmed once as the head of the NLRB, and Republicans have not voiced personal objections to his reappointment.
He appears to be more in the category of Richard Courdray, the nominee to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and Gina McCarthy, Obama’s choice to run the EPA. Those nominees, Democrats said, found themselves stuck because Republicans don’t want those agencies to function.
“They don’t like what these agencies do, so they block the nominees who would lead them,” Schumer said.
That being the case, it’s time for a change, said Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who has been one of the leaders of a group of senators that has been pushing for filibuster reform in recent years.
“We have seen unprecedented obstruction from the other side of the aisle,” Udall said, adding that the overuse of the filibuster had led to “a tyranny of the minority” in the Senate.
The modern-day filibuster is not at all the traditional nonstop talkathon made famous in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
Long ago, the filibuster evolved into a rule that now requires a 60-vote majority on a motion to proceed on major nominations and legislation.
Under the change that Reid is contemplating, the 60-vote rule would no longer apply to presidential executive appointments, although it would continue to apply to judicial nominees and the bills the Senate is considering.
Nevertheless, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said, a filibuster rule change by the Democrats “would be a mushroom cloud over the Capitol.”