Fed up with Republicans’ obstruction tactics that have scuttled three nominations in three weeks to the second-most powerful U.S. court, Senate Democrats are ready to act on changing the Senate rules through what is known as the “nuclear option,” including several who were strongly opposed until now. Changing the rules would mean that at least some nominees could be confirmed by a majority vote, without the procedural hurdle of the 60-vote cloture motion that has stalled so many of Obama’s judicial and executive branch nominees.
Some have been hesitant to lose the option to filibuster presidential nominees in extreme circumstances. But as Republicans move from “filibuster use to filibuster abuse” in blocking all three of Obama’s nominees to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, support for some form of the “nuclear option” now has several more high-ranking senators in its corner:
- Sen. Barbara Boxer ((D-CA): “I am very open to changing the rules for nominees. … I was not before, because I felt we could work with them. But it’s gotten to an extreme situation where really qualified people can’t get an up-or-down vote.”
- Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA): “If ever there’s evidence for [a rules change], it is now.” Feinstein said she changed her position after a compromise deal reached last year to push through nominees did not stop obstruction from leaving crucial seats vacant. She told the Huffington Post it is “unconscionable” that Senate Republicans are now allowing a vote on Obama’s cabinet and judicial nominees.
- Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA): “So far they have shut down the government, they have filibustered people [President Obama] has nominated to fill out his administration and they are now filibustering judges to block him from filling any of the vacancies with highly qualified people: We need to call out these filibusters for what they are: Naked attempts to nullify the results of the last election.” She added, “If Republicans continue to filibuster these highly qualified nominees for no reason other than to nullify the president’s constitutional authority, then senators not only have the right to change the filibuster, senators have a duty to change the filibuster rules. We cannot turn our backs on the Constitution. We cannot abdicate our oath of office.”
- Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), one of the original proponents of filibuster reform, said recently: “The Senate rules must change … This is a war on the other two branches of government and their ability to do the jobs the American people need them to do.”
- Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) is another longtime supporter of filibuster reform. He said last month: “We keep getting up to the edge of it, and then we make some, quote, gentleman’s agreement … and then you find out the gentleman’s agreement doesn’t hold. … I’ve been so frustrated by it.”
- Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV): The Senate majority leader holds the ultimate authority on whether Democrats invoke the nuclear option. He said Tuesday he is actively weighing a rules change, and won’t accept a deal to avert the nuclear option that includes anything less than confirmation of all three D.C. Circuit nominees stalled over the past few weeks. In July, Democrats scored a short-term victory with a deal to confirm seven executive branch nominees in exchange for dropping filibuster reform. But just a few months later, they ended up facing the same sort of Republican obstruction.
Sens. Patrick Leahy and Schumer said prior to Monday night’s vote that they would support reform on terms that have now become reality:
- Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT): “If [D.C. Circuit nominee Patricia Millett] is successfully filibustered, I think that the pressure on changing the rules would be almost insurmountable.”
- Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY): Asked about filibuster reform before the most recent votes, he said: “If the opposition was not to the person, but to just filling the position, that was where we would draw the line. And this is getting close to that.”
Even Joe Biden, who has long defended Senate traditions, said last month that “it’s worth considering” the nuclear option.