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Will there be a nuclear winter?

Congressional Republicans keep blocking nomination votes. Is it time for Harry Reid to deploy "the nuclear option"?
/ Source: MSNBC TV

Congressional Republicans keep blocking nomination votes. Is it time for Harry Reid to deploy "the nuclear option"?

Shortly after Senate Republicans blocked votes on the nomination of Mel Watt to lead the Federal Housing Authority and of Patricia Millett to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, I ran into a longtime Senate aide Thursday on the East Front of the Capitol.

“Republicans will regret these two votes,” he observed, noting that by blocking two well-qualified nominees -- the first African-American to head the FHA and the second woman they have prevented from sitting on the D.C. Circuit -- the GOP had reignited debate in the Senate about whether presidential nominations should require 60 votes.

For many progressives, including some senators, this obstruction is further evidence that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid needs to deploy the so-called “nuclear option.” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) said after the vote, “The conversation on rules changes can't come fast enough for me.”

The filibuster of Watt is particularly extraordinary because he is the first sitting member of Congress since the Civil War to have his nomination defeated by a minority of senators. That vote will likely stand as the catalyst for a substantive change in the filibuster rules sometime this winter.

This week’s filibusters come less than four months after last-minute negotiations between Reid and John McCain resulted in Republicans acceding to the confirmations of previously blocked Democratic nominees, heading off a “nuclear” confrontation before the August recess.  

This week, McCain not only participated in the filibuster of Watt and Millett’s nominations, claiming on the floor that the nominees are extreme, he also threatened to block the confirmations of Janet Yellen to lead the Federal Reserve and Jeh Johnson to lead the Department of Homeland Security unless the demands that he and Lindsey Graham have made for testimony from Benghazi “survivors” are met.

This move is pure politics designed to insulate Graham, who faces a Tea Party primary challenger. The South Carolina Tea Party drafted a 29-point case for replacing him. Among their complaints is that the senator supported “Obama's radical appointments to the Supreme Court.”

The move makes it likely that Senate Democrats will soon come to a consensus on ending the filibuster for presidential nominations, allowing Reid to take action. The Senate leader will likely take the approach of bringing forward other noncontroversial nominees for votes over the next few weeks. In response, Republicans will continue their intransigence.

A clear message will be sent: The GOP conference is not going to change its behavior, and the only way to fix the broken Senate is to change the rules. Republicans have left Reid no choice but to deploy the nuclear option.

With the House under GOP control and Senate Republicans engaging in an unprecedented degree of obstruction, Congress has jumped from crisis to crisis, passing legislation and reaching deals only as the last seconds tick down before deadlines real or imagined. Therefore, a sense of complacency has set in around Washington based on the idea that last-minute deals can always be struck. But with McCain and Graham now leading the obstructionist charge, Democrats who wish to avoid an end to the filibuster are left without two negotiating partners who were instrumental in the 2005 “Gang of 14” deal and the deal agreed to in July to avert changes to the Senate’s rules.

The Senate staffer I met outside the Capitol will likely be proven correct. It’s looking increasingly unlikely that Republicans will recapture the Senate in 2014, primarily due to their own actions and recent tendency to nominate candidates who are unelectable in statewide races. And in 2016, the party faces an extremely poor electoral map.

As the political prognosticator Charlie Cook notes, “When all of the seats they won in 2010 come up -- they netted a six-seat net gain that year -- there will be 24 GOP seats up, compared with only 10 for Democrats.” Furthermore, “Seven of the 24 GOP senators up are hailing from states that Obama carried in 2012.”

Republicans will likely remain in the minority in the Senate for some time. Their abuse of the filibuster and refusal to participate in acts of governance are to blame for what will inevitably be their diminished power in the chamber. 

Ari Rabin-Havt is host of The Agenda on SiriusXM Progress 127 and a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Follow him on Twitter @AriRabinHavt.