Senate Fails To Detonate 'Nuclear Option'

Democrats had been preparing to change Senate rules on filibusters to push through President Obama's nominations to executive branch positions. Republicans agreed to allow votes on five nominations, and Democrats agreed to replace two particularly contentious names with others.

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In the Senate at the last minute, both sides blinked. Instead of detonating the so-called "nuclear option" to change Senate rules and blow up any good will left in that chamber, Democrats yesterday agreed to withdraw two controversial nominations. In turn, Republicans agreed to move quickly on some other stalled presidential appointments. Members of both parties say if there is a lesson from this standoff, it's to start listening to one another.

Here's NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: We may never know whether Harry Reid, the wily Senate majority leader, was really serious about doing away with filibusters of executive nominees by changing the rules with a simple majority or whether he was bluffing. And that's because about an hour before the Senate was to hold a vote on ending a GOP filibuster - a vote that, if it failed, could help trigger the nuclear option, Reid went to the Senate floor to announce that a deal averting such a crisis had been reached.

SENATOR HARRY REID: I think everyone will be happy, everyone will not be - oh, man, we got everything we wanted, but I think it's going to be something that is good for the Senate.

WELNA: This was the deal: Republicans would make sure five of President Obama's long-stalled nominees, including his picks for labor secretary and EPA administrator, would all quickly get up or down votes. Democrats, for their part, would withdraw two nominees to the National Labor Relations Board whom President Obama recess-appointed last year at a time that Republicans, as well as a federal appeals court, say the Senate was not actually in recess. They'd be replaced by new nominees.

John Cornyn, the Senate's number two Republican, described the deal as a win for his party.

SENATOR JOHN CORNYN: The White House decided to take the nuclear trigger out of Senator Reid's hand and withdraw these nominees, so I'm glad we are where we are.

WELNA: For a lot of Democrats, withdrawing those two nominees was a tough pill to swallow; one was California's Barbara Boxer.

SENATOR BARBARA BOXER: I don't love it, I think it's sort of blaming these two people who had nothing to do with the way they were appointed, but if it can get us past this momentary crisis and get some good will around here, but yet be able to fill all those positions plus the NLRB, I think it's worth doing, I really do.

WELNA: One Democrat who'd openly opposed changing the rules by a simple majority vote, Michigan's Carl Levin, said his party had avoided setting what could have been a very damaging precedent.

SENATOR CARL LEVIN: I'm glad we avoided the nuclear option, which apparently we have, and I think that shows the determination of most senators to protect rights of the minority, but more significantly not to allow the majority to just change the rules whenever the majority wants to change the rules.

WELNA: As a result of the deal, the Senate did confirm Richard Cordray as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, two years after Cordray was first nominated for the position. Republican leader Mitch McConnell noted that the Senate's rules are unchanged, and he made clear Republicans will filibuster other nominations as they see fit.

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: We still will be dealing with controversial nominees in the way that controversial nominees inevitably produce, a great debate. And all the options available to the minority remain intact.

WELNA: Republicans like to remind Democrats that the Senate was meant to be a kind of cooling saucer. Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley, who's led efforts to limit filibusters, says that may be true.

SENATOR JEFF MERKLEY: But we haven't had a cooling saucer, we have had deep freeze, and this event today is a significant moment in ending the deep freeze and putting us back onto a path, a functional path, to take on the big challenges that America expects us to address.

WELNA: Merkley and others agree that a pivotal moment in this latest crisis came Monday night when all but two senators took part in a heart to heart closed door discussion of their frustrations that went on for more than three hours. Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker proposed that meeting; he says the Senate could use more such encounters.

SENATOR ROGER WICKER: On a regular, fortnightly basis, for example, we ought to all meet together at lunch. And frankly, I'm tired of sitting down to so many lunches with only Republicans and hearing that echo chamber, and I think Democrats must feel the same way.

WELNA: Yet while Democrats may have holstered the nuclear option, they're keeping it within reach.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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