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Senators Strike a Deal on Filibusters, Averting ‘Nuclear Option’ Showdown

After closed talks, Sen. Harry Reid announced a compromise to break a partisan stalemate and avoid making changes to the current rules on filibustering. Gwen Ifill talks to Sens. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Roger Wicker, R-Miss., about how the Senate averted a showdown over nominee confirmations.

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    With a mid-morning deadline looming, Senate leaders reached an agreement today to avert a showdown over changing the chamber's rules.

    Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid emerged from days of tense negotiation to declare the Senate has achieved a new normal.

  • SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev.:

    I think it is going to be something that is good for the Senate. It is a compromise. And I think we get what we want. And they get what they want. Not a bad deal.


    A compromise which cleared the way for Senate confirmation of five White House nominees and the replacement of two others ended a partisan standoff that could have ground the Senate to a halt.

    Senators moved to confirm Richard Cordray, President Obama's pick to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. His nomination has been in limbo for two years. An early procedural vote cleared the way.

  • MAN:

    On this vote, the yeas are 71, the nays are 29.


    Next up, labor secretary nominee Thomas Perez, Gina McCarthy, the president's pick to run the Environmental Protection Agency, Fred Hochberg as head of the Export Import Bank, and Mark Gaston Pearce slated to step at the National Labor Relations Board.

    As part of today's deal, the White House agreed to withdraw two other NLRB nominees, Richard Griffin and Sharon Block. Partisan rancor heated up in recent days as Reid vowed to change Senate rules and quash threatened filibusters over the executive branch nominees.

    Today, some distrust remained.

  • SEN. BOB CORKER, R-Tenn.:

    But I do hope that members on the other side will note this good-faith effort. I don't think it's healthy for this body to constantly have potential rules changes hanging over the issues of our nation.


    While this agreement addresses the immediate need for the president of the United States to have his Cabinet and his senior staff confirmed, this agreement today only addresses one symptom of a seriously dysfunctional Senate.


    A showdown was averted only after senators gathered last night for a rare bipartisan closed-door meeting in the old Senate chamber. Today, leaders from both parties said the crisis was avoided only after the other side gave in.


    The understanding is that none of our rights will be waived. I mean, for example, 60-vote thresholds on controversial nominees will still have to be achieved. So in a sense, that's the regular way that we handle business here in the Senate.


    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 are not filibustering our right to change the rules if necessary.


    A supermajority, or 60 votes, will still be needed to overcome future filibusters. And today's agreement doesn't apply to judicial nominees.

    But, for now, the Senate plans to continue voting on President Obama's being choices, breaking a logjam years in the making.

    For more on today's compromise and what it means for the Senate and the White House, we are joined by Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley and Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker.

    Gentlemen, thank you both for joining us.

    Why did it take for a closed-door bipartisan meeting, one that happens so rarely, for the Senate to come to some accommodation on this, Sen. Wicker?


    Well, I think it's a matter of listening to each other.

    And I made the point on the Senate floor last Thursday to Leader Reid, a lot of times it's just the leaders on the floor oftentimes speaking to an empty chamber and rank and file members like Jeff and I don't talk enough.

    I think it's a matter of listening, learning what the grievances were, the perceived grievances, and seeing if we could find common ground.


    Let's talk about the common ground, Sen. Merkley. Usually, in a compromise, both sides get something. What did each side get in this case?


    Well, in this case, we get seven up-or-down votes on some very important nominations.

    And it's our hope that this will be a model for returning to the norms and traditions of the Senate, where filibusters on executive nominations are very rare.

    And, certainly, neither side gave ground on the future, neither the Republicans saying that they won't filibuster, nor the Democrats saying if there are filibusters outside of the norm that we won't come back to this conversation again.


    All of the Americans watching the way the Senate functions might ask a question. Senator Reid put it this way earlier today.

    And I will start with you, Sen. Merkley, and then I want to hear from you, Sen. Wicker.

    He said that this is the new normal? Is it the new normal or a variation on the old?


    We certainly hope that it will be the new normal because, essentially, as a way to summarize the Senate, it's supposed to be a deliberative body, sometimes characterized as being a cooling saucer, in the words of President Washington.

    But it's not supposed to be a deep freeze. And that's where we feel we have been. And we have also adopted these new traditions — and I say that in the best context — things that just weren't the way the Senate acted in the past. In the period of time from President Eisenhower to President Ford, there wasn't a single filibuster of an executive nomination.

    And so trying to return to that period where the power of advise and consent wasn't obstruct and destroy is very important.


    Is that where we are today, Sen. Wicker, with obstruct and destroy, instead of advise and consent?


    I think filibusters are sometimes in the eye of the beholder.

    Oftentimes, the leader will call a bill up, fill up the amendment tree, and then file cloture, and he will call that a filibuster. Let me make this point about the appointments. President Obama has appointed some 1,500 executive and agency nominations. He's gotten all of them through except for four.

    If he were a Major League batter, he'd be batting .999. So it's one thing to say we have had a lot of filibusters. I think the result has been protection of the right of the minority to get some information, to have some face-time with nominees. But in the long run, the vast overwhelming majority of them get confirmed, and we have still protected the executive's prerogative and the right of the minority, and we still have a Senate that reaches consensus and conciliation.


    Sen. Wicker, you're not including judicial nominations in your figures, are you?


    There's never — as a matter of fact, since the gang of 14 back in 2005, there have been only two judicial nominations stopped through the filibuster.

    So I think our record is pretty good. Oftentimes, we use that to get extra information, to give us a little extra time for more consideration. But in eight years' time, only two judicial nominations stopped by this filibuster, but it actually was a practice begun by the Democrats. Still a pretty good record of confirmation overall.


    Sen. Merkley, at a distance, it looks a little bit like the well is pretty well poisoned often between Republicans and Democrats in Senate and in the House. What do you think that this agreement for portends for that?


    Well, I do feel that this represents a moment where Democrats and Republicans sat down, listened to each other and formed a compromise.

    It's an effort to make the Senate more functional. And, certainly, as you indicated in your previous question, we have a big challenge with judicial nominations. My colleague's numbers don't really capture the fact that we only bring a nomination to the floor once the Republican leader has assured us there won't be a filibuster in order to save the Senate time.

    So, there's a vast amount of delay and obstruction that is taking place, in addition to the numbers that he represented. And here we are, we can't even start a conference committee on a budget, even though the House has passed a budget and the Senate has passed a budget, because it is being filibustered.

    And certainly that's strange, because why shouldn't you be able to start a conversation with the House to try to reach common budget numbers? We can't get a bill to the floor on sequestration because it's being filibustered. We can't get a bill to the floor on background checks.

    So, I think we need to pause in this moment and say Democrats and Republicans did listen to each other. We worked out a deal. We hope it will be a model for a better path forward, but we have got a lot more conversations to work on.

    And that's critical, because, right now, the Senate's dysfunction not only is a disservice to the country. It's breeding vast cynicism about the ability of government to be able to take on the challenges that we face in America.


    Sen. Wicker, I do want you to respond to that especially about the part about whether you agree that the Senate is actually dysfunctional.


    I think the Senate is dysfunctional for a number of reasons.

    There are a lot of frustrations on the part of Democrats and Republicans. Look, but let me speak, for example, to the budget issue. We didn't have a budget for three years.

    Now instead of moving to go to conference, the Democratic majority is asking for unanimous consent to go to Congress, because they know if they moved to go to Congress, our side would have an opportunity to send some motions to instruct to the floor.

    So there's two sides to this issue. And frankly if the chairman of Budget and the leader of the Democrats want to go to conference, they can simply offer a motion to go to conference.

    We would have an opportunity to offer our amendments and go forward. Instead, they have made it more difficult by making it where 100 of us have to agree.


    I guess my final question for you both is whether there always has to be a nuclear option, as this is called, in order for movement to happen on any issue, Sen. Merkley and then Sen. Wicker.


    Well, I would say at this point there's so much in partisan divide, and we don't have the three networks pulling us together from the 1970s and '80s.

    We don't have the relationships that come from being in the foxhole together, as the senators did when I first came here in 1976 as an intern. We don't have that framework. And, therefore, we either need to find ways to reconstruct a new social contract, or we need to change the rules.

    And that option of changing the rules is the option we don't want to go to. It's why Sen. Reid started in January 2011 with a gentleman's agreement. It's why he reached a bipartisan agreement with minor changes in January 2013.

    But if we cannot find that social contract, then we have the responsibility to the American citizens to make the Senate work and that means changing the rules and that probably means using a nuclear option.


    Sen. Wicker, it doesn't sound like anything much has changed.


    No, actually, I feel a lot better than — I think we are in much better shape than we were at this time yesterday.

    We had a session in the old Senate chamber and we actually listened to each other. Almost 100 senators were in there. We listened for three hours and 15 minutes. And I think this idea of a social contract where rank and file members like Jeff and like Roger Wicker are able to talk to each other and actually air grievances apart from the leaderships talking past each other, I feel a lot better and I think we're on a better track because of what we have gone through.


    Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, thank you. Democrat-Republican, Republican-Democrat, always good to see. Thank you both very much.


    Thank you, Gwen.


    You're welcome. Thank you.


    And this evening, the Senate did easily confirm Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

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