WASHINGTON, DC — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) offered his Republican colleagues a three word deal on Monday if they want him to back down from his plan to end filibusters on executive branch nominees: “stop the filibusters.” That’s what he told ThinkProgress in an exclusive interview proceeding his remarks today at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. In his public session shortly after our interview, he echoed these remarks, and was even more explicit about how far he is willing to go to prevent Senate Republicans from blocking several important nominees. When asked if there is any “wiggle room” between his position that all seven nominees Republicans are currently filibustering must be confirmed, and GOP efforts to maintain the filibusters, Reid answered “no.”
All seven nominees will be confirmed, one way or another, Reid said. And they will be confirmed soon. When one reporter asked whether Reid would be willing to delay a vote — currently scheduled for Tuesday — in order to hold “talks” with the Republicans, Reid mocked the question — “talks on what?”
The question facing Reid is whether 51 of his colleagues will hold together to prevent future filibusters on executive branch nominees, or whether several will spin off to broker a deal. In his sit down with ThinkProgress, Reid said that he is “very confident” that his caucus will hang together. “I know how many senators I have,” he said “and I know how many I need, and I feel quite confident.”
There is plenty of precedent, however, for last minute deals that block meaningful reform of the Senate’s rules. Twice in the last three years, a coalition of progressives pushed substantial reforms to trim the minority’s ability to dominate the Senate. Both times, they wound up with band-aids that left Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in the Senate’s captain’s chair.
What makes this time different, however, is the looming threat of two federal agencies simply shutting down. Thanks to Senate Republican filibusters and court decisions by Republican judges, both the National Labor Relations Board and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau could cease functioning unless the nominees to lead these agencies are confirmed. If the NLRB shuts down, that would completely neuter federal labor law. As we’ve previously explained, without the NLRB, “there will be no one to enforce workers’ rights to join a union without intimidation from their employer. No one to enforce workers’ rights to join together to oppose abusive work conditions. And no one to make an employer actually bargain with a union.” Indeed, the threat of an NLRB shut down is potentially an existential threat to unions as a whole — and to the higher wages unions provide to workers across the board. Senate Democrats can no longer afford to delay reform when the future of the entire labor movement looms in the balance.
What Reid does not want to talk about, however, is what happens when Republicans continue to obstruct President Obama’s judicial nominees — or what happens if Democrats take back the House and Congress is suddenly able to pass legislation again. Reid was insistent in our private interview that he is not interested in moving beyond executive nominees. When we pushed him on whether it would be possible to confirm a Democratic president’s nominee to the Supreme Court without filibuster reform, given successful GOP primary challenges targeting Republican senators who supported Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, Reid responded by asking “why don’t we just focus on what I want to do?” In his public session, he reiterated that he has “no intent of changing the rule” with respect to legislation.
At least on judicial nominees, however, it’s not clear how long that position will be sustainable. Even setting aside the nightmare scenario when a Supreme Court justice retires and Senate Republicans hold the seat open indefinitely until a Republican is elected to the presidency, Republicans are currently using their dominance of the second most powerful court in the country — the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit — to veto many executive branch actions that they disapprove of. Republicans on the D.C. Circuit did not simply strike down key environmental and labor regulations, they triggered the danger that federal labor law could cease functioning with a doubtfully reasoned opinion blocking President Obama’s ability to make recess appointments. Reid could win his current fight over executive branch nominees, only to have the D.C. Circuit’s Republican judges render much of that victory meaningless.
In the mean time, however, the most powerful man in the Senate appears absolutely determined to stop Republican filibusters of non-judicial nominees. He’s offering Republicans two choices — stop filibustering executive branch nominees, or he’ll stop them forever.