Last November, Democrats eliminated the ability of a Senate minority to defeat most presidential nominees. Six months later, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and his members have perfected the art of exacting revenge, forcing major delays on nominees — even those with unanimous support.
No, Republicans can no longer prevent a bare Senate majority from ultimately confirming Obama-nominated judges and executive appointees. But they can slow down the process and force Democrats to eat up valuable calendar time, effectively ensuring that the 141 pending nominations aren’t all confirmed by the time the 113th Congress ends next January.
A study released Wednesday by the liberal, anti-filibuster group Common Cause illustrates the extent to which this has occurred.
The best example of what Senate Republicans are up to is one grouping of 13 judicial nominees. All 13 have come up since the filibuster rule change. All 13 were ultimately unanimously confirmed by the Senate. But in each case, GOP senators attempted to filibuster their nominations, forcing delays before each nominee could come to a final vote. In other words, dozens of senators had no objection to these nominees but voted to block them anyway.
Filibusters were also attempted of four executive branch nominees even though they had support of at least three-fourths of senators. In each of those instances, several Republicans voted to block nominees they supported.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-NV) so-called nuclear option reduced the 60-vote threshold to 51 for non-Supreme Court nominees. But they remain subject to the “cloture” process, under which a single senator can force as many as 30 hours of debate on top-level nominees (and less for lower-level nominees and district judges). Reid has to take up the nominations one at a time unless there is unanimous consent to stack them up.
Prior to the rules change, Republicans had substantially ramped up their use of filibusters, but Reid and McConnell would occasionally cut deals to fast-track nominees with broad support. No more. Now filibusters are routine, even when zero senators object to the nominee.
“What that chart shows is that Reid didn’t need to go nuclear—he could have gotten all those judges confirmed simply by filing cloture and having votes,” said Don Stewart, a spokesman for McConnell. “He didn’t need the nuclear option to file cloture on judges.”
Democratic leadership aides, meanwhile, have described the filibusters on consensus nominees as petty and craven, warning that further rules changes are on the table if Republicans don’t reverse course.
In March, McConnell’s deputy, Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), signaled that the attempted filibusters were a reaction to the nuclear option and called on Reid to restore the 60-vote threshold for all nominees.
“My hope would be that the majority leader would choose to reverse the partisan rules change,” he said on the Senate floor, “so that we can go back to the bipartisan cooperative process that resulted in more than 200 Obama judges being confirmed.”