The Senate Is Careening Toward Another 'Nuclear Option' Confrontation

Did you think that, in the aftermath of the government shutdown and debt-ceiling standoff, things were getting less confrontational in Congress?

The Senate on Thursday began the process of careening toward another possible confrontation on the so-called “nuclear option” — a process by which Senate Democrats would look to change the chamber’s rules to force votes on stalled nominees so they can be confirmed by a majority vote.

On Thursday, Republicans blocked two of President Barack Obama’s nominees — Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.), the nominee to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency (which oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac), and Patricia Millett, a nominee to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) floated it on the Senate floor after Republicans blocked Watt’s nomination. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said in a statement that the votes showed the “Senate rules must change.”

“Senate Republicans just blocked up-or-down votes on a judicial nominee and an executive nominee back to back, within minutes of each other,” Merkley said. “This is a war on the other two branches of government and their ability to do the jobs the American people need them to do.

“The Senate rules must change.”

The two were the first presidential nominations that Republicans had blocked since the last “nuclear option” standoff, when Republicans eventually relented and allowed majority votes to proceed on five Obama nominations.

In some ways, the two filibusters on Thursday were unprecedented. Watt was the first sitting member of Congress to be filibustered since 1843 — when Rep. Caleb Cushing, President John Tyler’s nomination to lead the Treasury Department, was blocked.

Millett is one of three D.C. Circuit Court judges the GOP has said it will block, charging Obama with trying to “pack” the court with his nominees — a reference to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s proposal to increase the size of the Supreme Court by as many as five justices. Democrats point out that Obama is merely filling vacancies on the court — and that Republicans in the Senate didn’t have a problem confirming President George W. Bush’s nominees.

It’s not at that point yet, but the “nuclear option” has been floated as a response. One Senate Democratic aide said, simply, “not yet.” Another added that it wouldn’t happen “this week — but it’s certainly possible that things are heading in that direction.”

If — as expected — Republicans block Obama’s other two nominees to the D.C. Circuit Court, it could ramp up pressure on Senate Democrats, as well as provide some political cover to threaten the option. In addition to Watt, two key Obama nominations are about to enter the confirmation process — Janet Yellen to chair the Federal Reserve, and Jeh Johnson to lead the Department of Homeland Security. There’s nothing to indicate that Yellen or Johnson will face lengthy confirmation hurdles.

It’s not yet clear, however, that a majority of Democrats would support changing the chamber’s filibuster rules for confirmation of either judicial or Cabinet nominations by putting them to a simple majority vote. Democrats were confident last time that they had the votes, which eventually led Republicans to relent. But some Democrats were holdouts, arguing that they wanted to preserve their future ability to object to nominees.

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