WASHINGTON — Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) is threatening to do something that no Senate minority leader in modern history has attempted: bypass the majority party and force a vote on a high-profile nomination.
That would be Loretta Lynch, President Barack Obama’s attorney general nominee who has been twisting in the wind for five months, not because she faces united Senate GOP opposition per se but because her nomination has been caught up in an unrelated fight over abortion and human trafficking.
Reid’s daring and seemingly unprecedented move may succeed in shining a spotlight on GOP senators who support Lynch’s confirmation but are willing to go along with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in holding up the vote. But the gambit appears unlikely to succeed in securing Lynch’s quick confirmation.
Here’s what’s going on.
Reid claims he’ll force a vote if Republicans don’t act.
“Absolutely we can force votes. If we don’t get something done soon I will force a vote,” he told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on Thursday night. “I had a conversation today with a number of Republicans and told them really to get her done or I will make sure they will have an opportunity to vote against her.”
In other words, Reid is threatening to effectively seize the reins from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on the issue.
Here’s how Reid’s gambit would work.
Senate rules allow any member, when recognized on the floor, to make a motion to proceed to a nomination on the calendar. By tradition this is a prerogative of the majority leader, who enjoys the right of first recognition, but ordinary senators are not prohibited from trying. It just never happens.
So let’s say Reid tries. The next thing that would happen is that Republicans would object, and Reid would need 51 votes to override their objection and move forward. This is where his plan is likely to fail.
Five Republicans back Lynch, but are loyal to McConnell.
Assume all 46 Democratic members unite, Reid will need the support of at least four Republican senators to proceed to the executive session. The problem here is that the five Republicans who support Lynch — Sens. Jeff Flake (AZ), Orrin Hatch (UT), Lindsey Graham (SC), Susan Collins (ME) and Mark Kirk (IL) — have been loyal to McConnell on procedural matters. All have stood by him as he has delayed a vote on the nomination, and it’s extremely unlikely they’ll support Reid in a procedural move designed to undercut McConnell.
A Senate Republican leadership aide categorically said Reid’s move “would fail” and added: “He cannot force a vote on Lynch. It’s that simple.”
If Reid somehow cobbles together the majority needed to proceed to executive session, then he can file “cloture” on the nomination if 16 other senators sign his petition — they can all be Democrats. At that point, there would be a vote to proceed to the nomination, followed by a maximum of 30 hours of debate, and then a final vote on the nomination — both would require a simple majority.
“Democrats will frame those procedural votes as a test of the GOP’s willingness to confirm the first female African-American AG. That will put those GOP [senators who support Lynch] in a tough spot — precisely where Reid and Democrats probably want to put them,” said Sarah Binder, a Senate expert and George Washington University professor.
Reid’s gambit appears to be unprecedented.
Neither Reid’s office nor outside Senate experts could point to a modern precedent for such a move. The right of the majority leader to control votes has been unchallenged for generations.
“[T]he delay on Lynch is unprecedented,” said Adam Jentleson, Reid’s spokesman.
“I have never heard of this being attempted before,” said Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “It makes you wonder what’s going on in Harry’s mind right now in doing a prod on this issue. Unless it’s simply to register a strong political point.”
McConnell says he’ll bring up Lynch after the Senate passes an anti-sex-trafficking bill.
But it’s unclear when — or if — that’ll happen. The legislation stalled one month ago due to anti-abortion language that Democrats said they discovered while it was on the floor. Since then sparks have flown and offers have been traded, but the parties remain divided over whether trafficking victims should face restrictions on the use of money collected from perpetrators to get an abortion.
McConnell has used the Lynch nomination as a bargaining chip, but Democrats insist the issues are unrelated and that she deserves a vote regardless.
McConnell “has already announced that the Lynch nomination will get a vote,” said Don Stewart, his deputy chief of staff. “Members are continuing to work to find a way to overcome the Democrats’ filibuster of a bipartisan bill that will help prevent women and children from being sold into sex slavery. Once that bill’s complete, the Lynch nomination is next.”
If and when Lynch does come up, she appears to have at least 51 votes to be confirmed.