Is Harry Reid Bluffing About the Filibuster?

The Senate majority leader has threatened to reform the rules before. But this time, he may actually mean it.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

The Senate may be heading for a showdown on the filibuster. Majority Leader Harry Reid has spent the last week aggressively making the case for the "nuclear option" -- a majority vote to change the Senate rules on executive-branch nominations. On the Senate floor, on Meet the Press on Sunday, and in a speech Monday morning at the Center for American Progress, he has promised to enact such a rules change with a Tuesday morning vote if a set of seven contentious nominations is not approved. "I love the Senate," he said Monday, "but right now, the Senate is broken, and it needs to be fixed."

Is Reid really going to do it? Or is he bluffing?

That's the question on the minds of Senate watchers who have seen this movie before. Most notably, back in January, rules-reform advocates thought they finally had Reid's backing to rein in the filibuster. But instead, Reid seems to have used their proposals as a foil to secure a far more limited procedural deal in an agreement worked out behind the scenes with the Republican leader, Senator Mitch McConnell.

This time, Reid insists he is serious, and his vote threat is not a negotiating tactic. Gridlock and "not getting things done" are the reasons Congress is so abysmally unpopular, he said Monday. The filibuster's use has exploded to an unprecedented degree: Lyndon Johnson, he noted, had to overcome a single filibuster in his six years as majority leader; Reid, in the same amount of time, has faced more than 400. The Constitution, he noted, does not call for supermajority votes for presidential nominations. Like a baseball manager, he said, a president of either party "should have the ability to pick their team."

Reid is not much of an impassioned speaker, so this is about as passionate as he gets. The public speeches and media appearances are also a remarkably frontal and public crusade for a leader who normally prefers to get things done by quieter means. His confrontations with McConnell, heretofore clothed in a sort of phony, gritted-teethed Washington "comity," have become openly hostile: On the Senate floor last week, McConnell said Reid would "be remembered as the worst leader here ever."

Reid and McConnell's dueling floor speeches became so heated that another senator, Roger Wicker of Mississippi, finally stepped in to ask them to knock it off. Like a kid beseeching his parents to stop embarrassing him by fighting in public, Wicker suggested that the conversation continue behind closed doors. As a result, all 100 senators are scheduled to convene -- off the record and without staff present -- in a rare bipartisan session Monday evening.

The unusual meeting offers the possibility of a deus ex machina solution to the current standoff. But Reid insists that he is past seeking a negotiated solution and that unless all seven of the proffered nominations get a vote, he will proceed with the rules change. The nominations include Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and two nominees to the National Labor Relations Board; Republicans are blocking them, Reid averred, not because their qualifications are lacking but out of a desire to stop their agencies from functioning.

Jim Manley, a former top Reid staffer who knows the inscrutable majority leader well, told me he believes Reid is serious. "I believe he's had it up to here with the Republicans, he and his caucus realize something has to change, and he's prepared to move forward [on Tuesday," Manley said.

In his speech Monday, Reid posited that the rule change he's proposing is no big deal. "In the last 36 years, we've changed the rules with a simple majority 18 times," he said, But Republicans are not likely to see it that way. They warn that if Reid does this, it will lead to more gridlock, not less; one top GOP lobbyist predicted that the reaction will be one of "massive resistance" that will completely shut down the Senate. A Republican leadership aide agreed with this assessment.

But Reid insists the time has come for action. When an audience member at his Monday speech asked him if there was room for future negotiations, he replied, "Talks on what? Talks on what? Talks on what?" He paused for emphasis. "If they have a proposal, bring it to me. But otherwise, we're going to have a vote in the morning."