Sweeping Senate rule change has consequences

BY Christina Bellantoni  November 22, 2013 at 9:15 AM EST


Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid talks to reporters about the use of the ‘nuclear option’ at the U.S. Capitol Thursday. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

They went nuclear.

No, Senate Democrats aren’t glowing green, but Thursday they voted to implement historic rule changes that could dramatically reshape the remaining years of President Barack Obama’s second term in office.

It’s easy to get bogged down in the parliamentary procedural particulars, but the short version is this: It will take just 50 Democrats and Vice President Joe Biden as the tiebreaker to confirm Mr. Obama’s judicial and top administration nominees.

The lower threshold for clearing Mr. Obama’s nominations means Rep. Mel Watt, the first sitting member of the House to be denied approval in 170 years, and three of the president’s nominees to serve on the D.C. Circuit Court, could be approved when the Senate returns from recess in early December. It also clears the way for some of the president’s more senior Cabinet members to step aside, given their replacements could face swifter confirmation. (Or, as Ezra Klein points out, the president could fire people because he knows they’d be replaced quickly.) Finally, the nominees could become more partisan in nature because mathematically Mr. Obama would no longer need to win any GOP votes. There are currently 53 Democrats, two independents who caucus with the Democrats and 45 Republicans.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made the change, dubbed the “nuclear option” on Capitol Hill, so nominees no longer face a 60-vote threshold for approval. He argued Senate Republicans have dangerously delayed Mr. Obama’s picks for years, and that the unprecedented move could ease government gridlock.

The Senate GOP counters that Democrats have taken advantage of their majority and will regret it. For years, some lawmakers have worked to avoid such a change, with senators in both parties warning others that they won’t like the new rules if the majority shifts. The Morning Line

Three Democrats joined with all of the chamber’s Republicans to oppose the move: Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

Roll Call’s Niels Lesniewski explains in more detail:

The new precedent represents what’s likely to prove the most significant change in Senate rules since 1975, when the cloture threshold was reduced to 60 votes in most cases (from two-thirds of senators present and voting).

“The Senate is a living thing. And to survive, it must change. To the average American, adapting the rules to make Congress work again is just common sense. This is not about Democrats versus Republicans,” Reid said opening the Senate. “This is about making Washington work — regardless of who’s in the White House or who controls the Senate. To remain relevant and effective as an institution, the Senate must evolve to meet the challenges of a modern era.”

On the Senate floor, retiring Democrat Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin applauded Reid for “leading the Senate into the 21st Century.”

“I’ve waited 18 years for this moment. The sky will not fall, the oceans will not dry up, a plague of locusts will not cover the earth,” he said. He also wants to see broader changes. (Right now, the rule change does not apply to legislation or to Supreme Court nominees.)

But Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., complained: “It’s another raw exercise of political power to permit the majority to do whatever it wants whenever it wants to do it.”

Politico’s Manu Raju deconstructs how Reid managed to make the change happen, given the leader for months had threatened to do so but ultimately backed down.

Both parties spent the day reminding the others of what they have said previously on the topic. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell once liked the idea, and then-Senator Barack Obama hated it.

“Anything less than 100 percent is obstructionism to them,” the Kentucky Republican said on the floor.

McConnell also penned an op-ed in Friday’s USA Today reminding Democrats that they once opposed the idea. It concludes:

This “naked power grab,” as Biden put it, is dangerous for our democracy. Rather than learn from past precedents, Democrats have set yet another one; they will one day regret this one, too, when the Senate majority inevitably changes — as it always does.

Mr. Obama delivered a statement to reporters hailing the move to end what he dubbed “unprecedented” obstruction.

“Public service is not a game. It is a privilege. And the consequences of action or inaction are very real. The American people deserve better than politicians who run for election telling them how terrible government is, and then devoting their time in elected office to trying to make government not work as often as possible,” Mr. Obama said.

No matter how things move forward, this will certainly be an issue for Senate hopefuls and incumbents during next year’s midterm elections.

The NewsHour examined the change, then Gwen Ifill fielded a debate between Sens. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.

The late Sen. Robert Byrd “has got to be rolling over in his grave,” Johnson said. Merkley countered it’s the GOP’s own fault. “What brought this to a head today was a decision by the minority that they were going to block any nominee, no matter their qualifications, no matter their high character, if the president — if they were nominated by President Obama. And that type of approach is just completely unacceptable,” he said.

Watch the segment here or below:

With Congress on a break next week, the Morning Line will take a brief holiday. Hope everyone has a happy Thanksgiving. We’ll return Dec. 2. Keep an eye on the Rundown blog for breaking news throughout the day, our home page for show segments, and follow @NewsHour for the latest.

FIFTY YEARS LATER

There will be a lot of remembrances and tributes paid to our nation’s 35th president Friday, on the 50th anniversary of his assassination. The NewsHour Friday night will examine Kennedy’s legacy in a detailed discussion with historians, and we have 10 reflections from a Secret Service agent, an ambassador, historians and bloggers about how Kennedy changed the world.

But we also offered a unique examination of how the dark day on Nov. 22, 1963 influenced two journalists for a lifetime. Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer were young reporters both covering Kennedy’s visit to Dallas. The NewsHour’s founders sat down with Judy Woodruff to share their indelible memories of JFK’s assassination and recounted their feelings of disbelief and grief.

Watch here or below:

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LINE ITEMS

  • Negotiators attempting to avoid another government shutdown will keep working over Thanksgiving break and say that they are optimistic about reaching an agreement, writes the Washington Post’s Lori Montgomery. They have until Dec. 13 to craft a deal, though the current funding measure does not expire until Jan. 15.
  • Janet Yellen cleared the Banking Committee on a 14-8 vote Thursday. Three Republicans, Sens. Mark Kirk, Tom Coburn and Bob Corker, joined Democrats to back her nomination to lead the Federal Reserve Bank. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin was the lone Democrat to vote against her.
  • The president and first lady will sit down with Barbara Walters for an interview airing Friday on ABC News.
  • Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has revived his role working with North Korea to free an American detained there.
  • The National Defense Authorization Act is in limbo after lawmakers rejected a move to end debate on the measure before heading home for a Thankgiving recess.
  • The president will give a speech about the economy next week at the Dreamworks headquarters in Silicon Valley.
  • Rep. Trey Radel entered a rehabilitation facility in Ft. Myers, Fla. following his guilty plea to cocaine possession. Politico’s Anna Palmer and Jake Sherman report that the freshman has brought on longtime GOP consultants Brian Walsh and Ron Bonjean to help while he’s taking a leave of absence from the House. And Roll Call’s Abby Livingston rounds up the potential GOP primary challengers who could take on the Sunshine State lawmaker.
  • Negotiations over the farm bill faltered Thursday, meaning it is possible lawmakers will enter a third year without having one in place.
  • Bloomberg News sees global investors’ confidence in Mr. Obama plunge in a new survey following the government shutdown even as stocks traded at record highs and bond yields remained near historic lows.
  • Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus has a strategy for the midterm elections: make sure the Democrats are tied to “Obamacare.” He’d like to “tattoo it to their foreheads and beat them in 2014,” he told David Brody.
  • Politico’s James Hohmann learns that Sen. Ted Cruz is meeting with Donald Trump in New York Tuesday.
  • Several news organizations filed a letter to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney in protest of the administration’s restrictions that prohibit journalists from documenting some of Mr. Obama’s official duties. The news organizations wrote that such restrictions violate the First Amendment that guarantees the right to a free press. The news broke as the president sat down for an off-the-record meeting with liberal journalists.
  • Police have not arrested anyone following this week’s Capitol Hill attack on Rep. Grace Meng.
  • Speaker John Boehner has successfully enrolled in the government’s health care coverage through the District of Columbia’s exchange. However, Boehner received an error message when he first tried to enroll and [wrote on his website], “Like many Americans, my experience was pretty frustrating.”
  • Boehner told reporters that immigration reform is “absolutely not” dead on Capitol Hill, but did not lay out a timeline for a vote. The Senate passed its comprehensive, bipartisan bill last spring.
  • Writing from the Republican Governors Association meeting in Scottsdale, the Associated Press sees newly elected RGA chairman New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as “taking on a new high-profile role that could enhance a future White House campaign.” The AP writes that the perch “will allow him to travel the country in support of GOP governors and candidates and raise money for the party throughout 2014. He dismissed any talk of a 2016 presidential campaign, saying the task of competing in 36 governors’ races was the top priority.” Politico’s Hohmann gets into how Christie plans to do the job.
  • Reuters has more on the RGA meeting and governors clearly distancing themselves from Washington. Former President George W. Bush made a surprise appearance in Phoenix to talk with the governors.
  • Causing more than a few snickers on the Hill, one of the casualties of the Senate going nuclear was, well, nuclear safety. Reid asked senators to head to the floor to vote and drop what they were doing, including a hearing on the nuclear fallout from the Fukushima incident.
  • New York Times columnist Frank Bruni found Courtney Love’s cell phone in a cab.
  • Behold, Histagrams!

NEWSHOUR: #notjustaTVshow

  • A day after the U.S. and Afghanistan announced a historic agreement, Afghan President Hamid Karzai suggested delaying the signing of the deal until next April. Judy Woodruff talked to James Dobbins, the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, for insight on the need to resolve the deal. Watch.
  • Don’t miss our series of stories about Americans affected by the Affordable Care Act.
  • Keep an eye on the Rundown blog for breaking news throughout the day, our home page for show segments, and follow @NewsHour for the latest.

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Aileen Graef and Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.

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Questions or comments? Email Christina Bellantoni at cbellantoni-at-newshour-dot-org.

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