WASHINGTON – Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid asserted his determination to end the use of the filibuster to block presidential appointments Monday, saying the change was needed to “save the Senate from becoming obsolete.”
“This is really a moment in history when circumstances dictate the need for change,” the Nevada Democrat said in a morning speech at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. “All we want to do is what the Constitution says we should do. Filibusters are not part of the Constitution.”
Reid’s remarks represented a further escalation in his rhetoric in the dispute with the Senate’s Republican minority over procedural maneuvers that have left a number of President Obama’s choices to executive branch postings unconfirmed nearly a half year into his second term. The speech comes ahead of a rare gathering of the full Senate membership Monday night in the historic Old Senate Chamber in a final effort to short-circuit the changes.
In response to Republican allegations that the changes he seeks would forever change the character of Congress’ upper house, Reid described the change to Senate rules as “minor.” The filibuster in its current form would continue to apply to judicial nominations, which unlike the administration posts are lifetime appointments, and to legislation.
“The power of an extreme minority now threatens the very integrity of this institution,” he said. “Everyone knows that under the Constitution we have a responsibility to give advice and consent to the president on his nominations, but all we have from the Republicans is … obstruct and delay.”
Republicans can avert any attempt to implement what they have called the “nuclear option” by simply allowing seven stalled nominations to move ahead for up-or-down votes, he said. They include three members of the National Labor Relations Board, and the heads of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Labor Department and Environmental Protection Agency.
Changing Senate rules typically requires a two-thirds majority, but Democrats say there is a loophole available that would allow them to do so with 51 votes. Reid claimed he had sufficient support among his 54-member Democratic caucus to do so. Vice President Joe Biden, expected to come to the Senate on Tuesday to swear in Massachusetts Sen.-elect Edward Markey (D), would also be available to cast a tie-breaking vote if necessary.
Republicans counter that Democrats now seek a higher standard for confirming presidential appointments than they had allowed when they were in the minority during President George W. Bush’s second term. Then, Democrats successfully blocked Bush’s nominee for ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton (who later took the post in a recess appointment). No Obama Cabinet nominee has yet been defeated, and the two scheduled for votes Tuesday would likely be confirmed.
Republicans say they would be willing to confirm new nominees to the NLRB instead of two of the pending choices that Obama had attempted to install through recess appointments. Their appointments were struck down by appeals courts that said Congress wasn’t actually in recess.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell pointed out Sunday that the Senate has confirmed 1,560 nominees, and blocked just four.
“We have never changed the rules of the Senate by breaking the rules of the Senate in order to diminish the voices of individual senators,” the Kentucky Republican said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “We've never done that, and we sure shouldn't start it now, particularly since every one of the president's nominees that would be subject to this rule change have been confirmed.”
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