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'Nuclear option' averted in Senate after Republicans blink

We know why this man is smiling.
We know why this man is smiling.Associated Press

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) stuck to a pretty straightforward message over the last several days: if Republicans didn't want to see the "nuclear option" happen, they had to allow the Senate to vote on several executive-branch nominations. If the GOP minority didn't back down, Reid said, Democrats would be left with no choice.

So Republicans backed down.

Senate leaders struck a deal on Tuesday to avoid the "nuclear option," as Republicans relented and allowed a series of President Barack Obama's stalled nominees to move forward toward confirmation.

As a sign of a break in the stalemate, Republicans allowed a vote Tuesday morning to advance the nomination of Richard Cordray to permanently lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, passing 71-29.

Cordray, whose nomination has been pending for about 700 days, ended up receiving 17 Republican votes, at least on the cloture motion, clearing the way for confirmation this afternoon.

Senators characterized this as a "compromise," but by any fair measure, Democrats got the better end of this deal. The Senate will have up-or-down votes on the pending executive-branch nominations from President Obama, and they'll all be confirmed. When it comes to the National Labor Relations Board, the pending nominees will be replaced with two new White House selections -- whose names may be announced as early as today -- and whose nominations will be fast-tracked for confirmation.

In addition to all of these confirmations, Democrats also maintain the option of bringing back the nuclear-option threat whenever they see it as necessary.

And what do Republicans get? They two new NLRB nominees -- which isn't much of a deal, since the new choices will be just as progressive as the current nominees -- and the comfort of knowing the rules of the Senate have not been formally changed.

I've seen some suggestions that Reid blinked. For those who hoped to see the nuclear option go through, I can appreciate the disappointment, but let's not forget that Reid's goal wasn't the nuclear option -- rather, what the Majority Leader wanted was confirmation of qualified progressive nominees to fill key administration posts. And that's exactly what he's getting.

Reid played hardball; Republicans believed he would follow through on his threats; so they caved.

There are multiple angles to this story, but here are a few elements to keep in mind:

* There's a new GOP negotiator in town: For years, Mitch McConnell was fairly adept at sitting down with Senate Democratic leaders and working out agreements when a crisis loomed. No more. Reid no longer trusts McConnell, and McConnell doesn't really want to strike deals with Democrats anyway, so John McCain has positioned himself as his party's chief negotiator. Note that it wasn't just McCain striking deals on immigration, he's also siding with Dems on the need for budget talks.

* Deadlines matter: Without confirmed officials very soon, the National Labor Relations Board would no longer be able to function after August 27. It's one of the factors that precipitated Democratic action on this -- the Senate always seems to work more effectively when it's faced with a deadline.

* A moot case at the Supreme Court? The U.S. Supreme Court had agreed to hear a case involving NLRB recess appointments. Now that those recess appointments are poised to go away, and will be replaced with regularly confirmed officials, there's some speculation that the case before the high court may be moot.

* This may yet happen again: McConnell pushed last night for a promise that Dems would drop the nuclear option as a possibility for the foreseeable future if Republicans agreed to confirmation votes. Reid refused. Today's deal drops that condition entirely, which means if Republicans start blocking executive-branch nominees again soon, there's every reason to believe Reid can and will bring the threat back up.

All things considered, I'd say Senate Democrats got about 90% to 95% of what they wanted from this.