The battle over the filibuster escalated Wednesday as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) jumped in the fray to lash Democrats' threats
to use the "nuclear option
" to scrap the minority party's ability to filibuster presidential nominees to cabinet and judicial positions. He and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) clashed in a heated floor exchange that led to hours of sniping
between their offices.
"These continued threats to use the nuclear option point to the majority's own culture of intimidation here in the Senate," McConnell said, making a case that Republicans are using the filibuster responsibly. "Their view is that you had better confirm the people we want, when we want them, or we'll break the rules of the Senate to change the rules so you can't stop us. So much for respecting the rights of the minority."
McConnell's public indignation suggests that he takes Reid's threats seriously. By contrast, in the final weeks prior to the bipartisan rules change
this January which preserved the filibuster, his criticism quieted -- a sign that he wasn't worried the minority's power would be infringed.
Reid fired back at the Republican leader and his office pointed to a recent nonpartisan government report
which found that despite the slew of nominees Republicans have let through since President Obama's reelection, levels of obstruction for his judicial nominees have surpassed that under each of the last five presidents.
"Today, Senator McConnell defended the status quo of gridlock and obstruction in Washington, saying 'there is no real problem here.' I could not disagree more," Reid said. "Despite the agreement we reached in January, Republican obstruction on nominees continues unabated. I want to make the Senate work again -- that is my commitment."
Three pending nominations for the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (Richard Cordray) and Departments of Energy (Gina McCarthy) and Labor (Tom Perez) will have an important impact on the debate. Republicans strongly oppose them all. Reid is said to be eying votes around July so that they don't damage the prospects of immigration reform. Whether or not Republicans let them through will affect the pressure for filibuster reform.
But the votes won't necessarily be dispositive of the outcome. Sources familiar with Reid's thinking say
he's exhausted with GOP obstruction and is ready to end the filibuster for nominations, but they caution that he doesn't necessarily have 51 votes to make it happen.
The nuclear option refers to a process by which the party in power can change the rules with a bare majority of senators. Senate experts note that this seldom-used procedure can be invoked at any time. If nothing else, Reid's threats could be a negotiating tactic to force Republicans to ease up on their filibusters of some controversial nominees.