Time for the ‘Nuclear Option’?

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., speaks with reporters following a Democratic strategy session at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, May 7, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid speaks with reporters following a Democratic strategy session at the Capitol in Washington, May 7, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The Washington Post’s Greg Sargeant reports that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is threatening to make filibuster reform a reality if Republicans block three key Obama cabinet nominees in coming weeks.

President Obama’s picks to head the Department of Labor, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Financial Protections Bureau are in danger of — or already are — being filibustered. Apparently, Harry Reid has had enough.

According to an aide, Reid has talked to the president and other senior officials about his plan — dubbed the “nuclear option” — which would change the rules regarding judicial and executive branch nominations. Some Democrats have been urging Reid to revisit the filibuster issue for months — and he has threatened to, at times — but it seems he now has a timeline set. Sargeant writes:

If Republicans block those three nominees, the aide tells me, “then our position will be very easy.”

Second, immigration reform is looming as a wild card in Reid’s internal thinking about whether to revisit the filibuster. The aide says senior Democratic senators have privately expressed worry to the majority leader that revisiting the rules could imperil the immigration push, and have asked him to delay it until after immigration reform is done (or is killed).

This is why July has emerged as the rough target date, the aide says. “The fear is that if he does this before immigration reform is done, then all of the Republicans are going to walk,” the aide tells me.

Congressional expert Sarah Binder writes in The Monkey Cage that it may be an empty threat: Reid may not have the 51 Democratic votes needed to go nuclear. In the past, the majority party has been reluctant to enact filibuster reform knowing that someday in the future, they will be the minority.

Washington Post opinion blogger Jonathan Bernstein thinks Reid is choosing “exactly the right path” to push Republicans to back down, regardless of whether or not he really intends to go nuclear.

For Reid, the trick is to find a way to ratchet up the threat of reform in order to push Republicans as far away from that line as possible. That’s a very difficult job; after all, he can hardly announce that he’s okay with Republicans filibustering Smith as long as they don’t filibuster Jones (thus inviting them to filibuster Smith, something he doesn’t want but which might not trigger reform).

As far as I can see, Reid is doing an excellent job at this complex game; leaking this threat now and generally upping the ante on nominations in general seems to be exactly the way to go. Sargent’s report has Reid ready to pull the trigger if Republicans defeat cloture on three specific upcoming executive branch nominees. That seems about the right way to play it; it’s a tough, specific threat (ratcheting up!) while still leaving plenty of ambiguity about whether a slightly different configuration of obstruction would also trigger reform.

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