Harry Reid is ready to go nuclear.
After months of quiet lobbying, Democratic sources say the powerful Senate majority leader is ready to invoke the “nuclear option” to limit the use of the filibuster on executive branch nominations as early as next week.
The move could have dramatic implications for both Reid and President Barack Obama. It would also amount to a significant shift in power away from the Senate and toward the White House by ensuring presidential nominees win confirmation to their posts by a straight majority vote.
The result would be a quicker confirmation process for controversial presidential nominees, but infuriated Republicans could look to retaliate in other ways, such as derailing Senate business or further weakening filibuster rules if they return to the majority after the 2014 midterms.
Reid appears to have enough support within the Democratic Caucus to go forward with the proposal, several Democratic senators and aides said. Reid will use a senators-only meeting on Thursday to lay out his plans.
“I’m going to have a caucus on this Thursday and I think … by the time the day’s out you’ll have a better idea on what we’re going to do on this,” the Nevada Democrat told reporters on Tuesday afternoon.
Under current Senate rules, 60 votes are needed to overcome a filibuster on a nominee or legislation. With Reid’s proposed rule change, only 51 votes would be needed to end filibusters on executive-branch nominees. Senators from either party could still force 60-vote thresholds for confirmation of judges, pending bills and virtually every other Senate action.
But what makes the move unprecedented is Reid’s likely decision to change the rules by 51 votes in a complicated process called the nuclear option. Typically, Senate rules are rarely changed because 67 votes are required to modify them, meaning the minority side can usually thwart any attempt by the majority to ram through rules’ revisions.
However, there are several parliamentary tactics that Reid can employ to circumvent the 67-vote requirement. By going the nuclear route, Republicans are warning that Reid would set a damaging precedent that would come back to haunt Democrats should the GOP take back the Senate majority. They could seek to further weaken filibuster rules by a straight majority vote, effectively helping them to advance a conservative agenda, including the repeal of Obamacare.
“I don’t think it’s going to happen because then when Republicans get into the majority, we will be able to pass legislation and nominees with 51 votes,” said Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican. “So I think it’s very shortsighted and would be fundamentally damaging to the Senate as an institution, which encourages deliberation and debate rather than just jamming stuff through on a partisan basis.”
“He better think about what he’s doing very carefully,” Cornyn warned.
Reid is teeing up for next week a series of controversial confirmation votes that Republicans may seek to block, including Obama’s nominations to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Labor Department and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Stalled nominations for seats on the National Labor Relations Board also are expected to face confirmation vote.