In a rare private session that went late into the evening Monday, members of the Senate held a historic discourse aimed at averting what would essentially be a legislative apocalypse: the use of a procedural maneuver known as “the nuclear option” to end filibusters of presidential appointments.
With Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., poised to exercise the option on Tuesday to bring seven held-up nominations to the Senate floor, senators gathered in hopes of finding a way out of a political impasse that threatened to bring Congress to a dead standstill, possibly for months to come.
The closed meeting in the Old Senate Chamber began around 6:15 p.m. and continued until 9:40 p.m., with 98 senators and only two aides—the secretaries of both parties—in attendance. The absentees were Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla. Their offices did not offer explanations why they missed a gathering that was unprecedented, at least in recent sessions of Congress.
Reid emerged from the session and made just a brief and cryptic comment about Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper, who was competing Monday night in a home-run derby preceding Tuesday’s All-Star baseball game.
“The night is late,” Reid said. “I’m anxious to see how Bryce Harper did in the home-run derby. We’ve had a very good conversation, a conversation that’s going to continue tonight. Votes are scheduled at 10 o’clock in the morning.”
Occasionally some word about the proceedings trickled out as senators left the meeting and spoke briefly to reporters waiting in the Capitol hallway. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said as he left around 9 p.m. that he hadn’t spoken at the meeting, and was asked if he had a sense of where it was going. “My sense is it isn’t,” Baucus said. “My sense is that most would like to avoid it,” he added, referring to the so-called nuclear option.
Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., said senators were frustrated, but the tone was different from when senators debate in public. “In there you’re not talking towards your constituency at all. You’re talking to each other,” Boozman said, adding that Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., spoke first, and that Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., emerged as leaders in the debate. Boozman stressed, however, that any senator who wanted to speak had the chance.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., told reporters there seemed to be a bipartisan “feeling that we would not go to the edge,” according to a Fox News report. Other senators referred all questions to Reid and McConnell; the latter had not emerged from the meeting by 10 p.m.
The meeting was the culmination of an ugly fight between Reid and McConnell, who last week said that if Reid changed the rules of the Senate and gutted the rights of the minority, he would be remembered as “the worst majority leader in history.”
Earlier in the day, Reid took his pitch to the Center for American Progress. “We have a situation where Republicans have created gridlock, gridlock, gridlock,” Reid said, and he argued his plan to end the impasse involved only “very, very minimal” changes to Senate rules.
Republicans, though, argue that Reid’s proposal would fundamentally change how the Senate works and set the chamber on the road to eliminating the filibuster altogether.
Reid has filed for cloture on seven nominees, including Gina McCarthy as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Thomas Perez as Labor secretary, and Richard Cordray as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Three appointees to the National Labor Relations Board and the president of the Export-Import Bank have also been on hold for weeks and Reid planned to move forward with those as well.
Cordray’s nomination was to be first on the list and would be considered Tuesday if an agreement to avoid the cloture vote was not reached.
Reid on Monday indicated he was playing hardball, not just bluffing to force Republicans to loosen their grips on the nominees. Asked whether he would consider changing his position if McConnell would agree to confirm some of the nominees, Reid answered flatly, “No.”
Republicans, who stand to lose some control, bristle at the notion of the rules change. Alexander continually suggested that Reid would be writing his own epitaph if he were to go nuclear.
McConnell, who last week launched an aggressive counterattack aimed at Reid’s proposal, refocused on Sunday, with a softer message that called for a reasonable, bipartisan approach to solve the issue.
“We need to start talking to each other instead of at each other, and see if we can’t resolve this in the same way that we did 10 years ago when Republicans had genuine provocation.”
But if the impasse is not broken and Reid exercises the nuclear option, congressional observers say the breakdown could create shock waves that run up and down Pennsylvania Avenue for a long, long time.
While the Democratic leader says the fallout would be limited, even a targeted strike could have far-reaching impact, and perhaps forever change how presidents pick their nominees. Right now, the question for any White House choosing Cabinet-level nominees is: What candidate is both ideologically compatible with the president and able to secure support from the other party?
But a Senate GOP policy aide argued that, under the world Reid is poised to create, the question becomes: What candidate will lose a handful only of votes within our own party?
Chris Frates contributed
This article appears in the July 16, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily as No Deal on Nominees After Rare Senate Meeting.