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For the third time this year, Democrats are threatening to change Senate rules and undercut the GOP minority's most potent weapon, the filibuster. Democrats say they're ready to use what's known as the nuclear option that would allow a simple majority to change traditional Senate rules. Why now? As NPR's David Welna reports, Republicans have recently blocked several of President Obama's judicial nominations.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: The push to curtail Republicans' right to filibuster has been led mainly by Democratic newcomers who have only served in the majority and, thus, have never used the threat of endless debate to block a nomination they didn't like. One of them is Jeff Merkley, a soft-spoken first-term Democrat from Oregon. He spoke today on the Senate floor.
SENATOR JEFF MERKLEY: We have a single path left to us to appropriately exercise advise and consent, and that is to change the rules so that they can't be abused.
WELNA: And the biggest abuse, Merkley and his fellow Democrats say, has taken place just in the last three weeks. During that time GOP filibusters have blocked three of President Obama's nominees to fill three long-standing vacancies on the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals. That court is widely seen as second only to the Supreme Court in importance since it rules on the actions of federal agencies and the White House. Republicans say that court is already well-staffed. Chuck Grassley is an Iowa Republican.
SENATOR CHUCK GRASSLEY: The data overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that the D.C. Circuit is underworked. Everyone knows this is true. That circuit does not need any more judges.
WELNA: Senate Republicans are hoping a few Democratic holdouts will stymie the effort to force a rules change with only a bare majority. Mitch McConnell is the minority leader.
SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: So far, majorities of both sides over the years have resisted the temptation to break the rules, to change the rules. But we know full well the majority could decide to break the rules, to change the rules if they so chose.
WELNA: Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, who is retiring next year after six terms in the Senate, is one of the Democrats opposed to using the nuclear option to change the rules.
SENATOR CARL LEVIN: It's unwise, it's unconscionable the amount of obstructionism that is taking place here. But in order to deal with it, you got to use the rules which force them to filibuster. Let them be here on the weekend filibustering one of these nominees for the court of appeals.
WELNA: But majority leader Harry Reid says that won't work.
SENATOR HARRY REID: I love Carl Levin, OK? He's one of my friends. We're going to miss him so very, very much. But the world is not like it was 30 years ago. Different world here.
WELNA: Reid had earlier resisted moves to eliminate the filibuster, but he's had a change of heart. He now endorses doing away with filibusters that block lower court judicial nominations and high-level executive appointments.
REID: I think we need and the American people want to get things done around here. I'm not talking about changing anything dealing with the Supreme Court or dealing with basic legislation. I am talking about executive nominations.
WELNA: Several other senior Democrats have also come around to embracing such a rules change. One of them is California's Dianne Feinstein.
SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN: So I think we need to change the rules. Now, Republicans say what goes around comes around. Wait till we're in charge. I can't wait until they're in charge. I mean, the moment is now. We're here for now.
WELNA: It's not clear whether there are enough Democrats yet to force a rules change on the filibuster. Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander warned today of a public backlash against a power grab he compares to the partisan passage of the Affordable Care Act.
SENATOR LAMAR ALEXANDER: If the Democrats proceed to use the nuclear option in this way, it will be Obamacare 2. It will be the raw exercise of political power to say, we can do whatever we want to do.
WELNA: He called on senators to stop a stampede they will later regret. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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