Harry Reid Raises Nuclear Option as GOP Senator Suggests Talks on Filibuster

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Something terrifying happened in the Senate on Thursday. Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada announced that he wanted the body to vote for some judicial nominees on a majority-rules basis. In order to avoid a move that would force them to do so, one senator suggested that all of the senators should get together and debate the idea. Both of these are novel, even shocking ideas.

This fight—which involved several gentlemanly fellows in suits speaking gently from behind sturdy wooden lecterns—has been coming for a while. In May, Reid made clear that the ongoing use of the casual filibuster—that is, the general threat to hold up decisions thereby forcing a 60-senator vote—necessitated a change to the rules. That change? Nominations from the executive branch would not be able to be filibustered. In other words, what Senator Ted Cruz of Texas called the "traditional 60-vote threshold" would not be an option. The president forced the issue in June, nominating three judges to the D.C. Circuit Court, expecting that the Republicans would be tempted to exercise that threshold.

Reid announced today that he planned to bring those nominees up for a vote next week in a speech from the Senate floor. He singled out the perceived intransigence of Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. As transcribed by Talking Points Memo:

The Republican leader has failed to live up to his commitments. He’s failed to do what he said he would do — move nominations by regular order except in extraordinary circumstances. I refuse to unilaterally surrender my right to respond to this breach of faith.

McConnell responded in kind. Calling Reid's frustration a "phony, manufactured crisis," the Republican leader suggested that such a change would mark the "end of the Senate." He insisted that two of the delayed nominees — the president's Labor and EPA Cabinet picks — would get the 60 votes needed to block a filibuster. The broader theme of Republican senators who spoke, though, was that slow approval of nominees is hardly exceptional. Tennessee's Lamar Alexander—who echoed comments from McConnell about Reid's post-mortem legacy—pointed out past examples of nominees from previous presidents who faced similar delays.

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Update, 5:00 p.m.: The Senate Minority Leader followed up on his statement that killing the Senate would "be on [Reid's] tombstone" with a tweet.

Roger Wicker of Mississippi kept a cooler head. Noting that after this morning's floor session, "Democrats are going to go off and have lunch with Democrats, Republicans will have lunch with Republicans," he offered that perhaps all the senators could get together early next week and listen to the other side for once. Watching the stream provided by CSPAN, it wasn't clear how many of the senators were listening to Wicker's comments from the floor of the Senate, where the issue was being debated by members of both parties.

As we've noted before, forcing a majority vote in that circumstance has been called the "nuclear option." Eliminating the ability to block a majority vote is a devastating, radioactive explosion; doing so would kill the Senate and wind up on Harry Reid's tombstone.

"I'm going to file the cloture"—that is, an end to filibuster attempts—"on a bunch of nominations," Reid said, the president's Labor and EPA nominees among them. "Those votes will occur next week when we schedule them." With words as scathing as those, you know we're in for a wild summer, we guess.

Update, 3:11 p.m.: The die is cast; Reid has filed for cloture. When asked if he would still ask for a rules change if the Republicans approve all seven outstanding judicial nominees,  he answered as you might expect: "Why would I want to do that?" Anything fewer?

Photo: Harry Reid speaking earlier this week. (AP)

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