WASHINGTON – Fresh from shackling the traditional blocking ability of the Senate’s minority party, Democrats are ready to muscle through President Obama’s nominees for pivotal judgeships and other top jobs.
Despite last month’s Democratic power play, Senate Republicans retain the power to slow, though no longer derail, Obama’s appointments.
Left unchanged were other rules that the out-of-power party could use to grind the chamber’s work to an excruciating crawl. That ranges from requiring clerks to read voluminous bills and amendments to forcing repeated procedural votes.
“There are so many ways of slowing things down in the Senate,” said Robert B. Dove, the Senate’s former longtime parliamentarian.
Today starts a two-week, year-end Senate session in which Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., hopes to finish work on a modest budget deal, a defense bill and other lingering items. It will also be the first test of how Republicans respond to the Democratic changes.
Today’s meeting marks the chamber’s first since irritable lawmakers left town Nov. 21 for their Thanksgiving break. Earlier that day, Democrats used their 55-45 advantage to reshape how filibusters work, trimming the number of votes needed to halt procedural delays against most nominations from 60 to a simple majority.
Democrats pushed through the changes after tiring of constant GOP efforts to derail Obama’s nominees. The move angered Republicans, who argue that Democrats frequently tried blocking President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees.
How the GOP responds will become clearer when they return to the Capitol. But in a chamber whose arcane rules give any single senator the ability to throw the brakes on much of its work, partisan friction can hurt.
“The fact is, it changes personal relationships with everybody on the other side,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. “It has damaged the ability of us to move forward.”
The Senate is vulnerable to delays because its rules technically require votes on almost anything it does. This includes agreeing to not read aloud an entire amendment, agreeing to begin considering nominations, and even letting committees meet while the Senate is in session.
To save time, the Senate usually does such things by unanimous consent – a quick voice vote to which no one objects. But angry senators can block fast action.
Democrats could make GOP delays as painful as possible, such as keeping the Senate in all night and on weekends.
“We’re going to seek to achieve as much as we possibly can and hope Republicans will cooperate with us, instead of just using knee-jerk obstruction,” said Adam J. Jentleson, spokesman for Reid.
Republicans are already using the rules to flex their muscle. When the Senate recessed for Thanksgiving, it did not approve a batch of noncontroversial nominations and bills, which it usually does before such breaks. With 60 votes still required to end filibusters against legislation, GOP senators are blocking final passage of the defense bill until Reid allows votes on Republican amendments.
Today, the Senate will vote on whether to confirm Patricia A. Millett to become a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Millett is a prominent private lawyer who worked in the Solicitor General’s Office under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, arguing 32 cases before the Supreme Court. Republicans used the old 60-vote requirement for stopping filibusters to prevent a vote on her nomination in October, a blockade that helped prompt Democrats to force the changes.