Senate Democrats Back Off 'Nuclear Option' To End Filibusters

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his Democrats took their support for President Obama's executive nominations to the brink of the "nuclear option," but then cut a deal with Republicans to pull back.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. The Senate went to the brink of the so-called nuclear option but then today, dialed it back. Senators struck a last-minute deal in their fight over President Obama's nominations. Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid had threatened a rules change. It would've stripped the Republican minority of their ability to filibuster executive branch nominations. The deal reached this morning diffuses that threat, at least for now.

Joining me from the Capitol to talk about a dramatic day there is NPR's Dave Welna. And David, explain the deal that was worked out in the Senate today.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Well, Melissa, Senate Republicans - led by Arizona's John McCain - agreed they would essentially drop GOP filibusters against seven executive branch nominees for whom Majority Leader Harry Reid had demanded up or down votes. Reid had scheduled a series of votes today, to end those filibusters. And when the first vote was held this morning on Richard Cordray - who'd been blocked for two years from getting an up or down vote on his nomination to be director at the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau - 17 Republicans, including McCain, voted to let Cordray's nomination move forward along with all the Democrats.

So that, in effect, confirmed that Republicans were sticking to the deal. Democrats, though, also made a pretty big concession by withdrawing two of these filibustered nominees whom President Obama had recess-appointed last year to the National Labor Relations Board. A federal appeals court has ruled those two appointments unconstitutional, and the matter's now before the Supreme Court.

And Republicans have now agreed to let those - the two replacement nominees for them, who are yet to be named, get up or down votes to sit on that board, which was in danger of losing a quorum next month and going out of business.

BLOCK: Well, what about future executive branch nominations, David? And will the agreement have any impact on those? I mean, for example, the president's going to have to find a replacement for Janet Napolitano, the Homeland Security secretary who's stepping down.

WELNA: Well, not necessarily. Unlike a deal eight years ago - when Republicans, who then controlled the Senate, agreed to drop their threats of using the nuclear option - the deal struck today does not bind the minority to let all but exceptional nominations move forward. But Majority Leader Reid did insist today that things have changed for the better.

SEN. HARRY REID: There's a feeling around here. Now, feelings don't last forever, and I understand that. But we're not - they're not sacrificing their right to filibuster, and we damn sure aren't filibustering our right to change roles, if necessary.

WELNA: So Democrats are, in effect, saying: We're not using the nuclear option today, but we're making no promises about not using it tomorrow if Republicans unreasonably block future nominees.

BLOCK: Yeah. Well, Harry Reid had said repeatedly, David, that he had the votes to force a change in the rules with the simple majority. Why do you think he relented, in the end?

WELNA: Well, you know, I don't think Reid really wanted to detonate the nuclear option because it might've really permanently poisoned relations in the Senate. But I think he was prepared to use it if a deal did not come through. But I think another big factor was an all-senators meeting last night in the old Senate chamber, where for more than three hours and behind closed doors, senators from both parties just sat there and listened to one another. Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker is the senator who suggested having that meeting.

SEN. ROGER WICKER: This was a pivotal moment - history of the Senate - where we almost destroyed an important institution. We have gotten to a new point in the Senate - because of the meeting we had last night - where rank-and-file members see the importance of listening past the leadership, to each other.

WELNA: Something Wicker says senators do too little of. He says he hopes they'll now have bipartisan lunches together, to keep up that level of communication.

BLOCK: Which does raise the question, David, whether this could be sort of a reset point for the Senate. I mean, this has been hugely acrimonious, leading up to this deal.

WELNA: Yes, I think it has been a sort of a reset. Well - but let's see how long it lasts. It's the Senate.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's David Welna, talking with us from the Capitol. David, thanks so much.

WELNA: You're welcome, Melissa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.