POLITICS: PennAve

GOP won't let ongoing threat of 'nuclear option' curb future filibusters

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Senate Republicans are generally pleased with a bipartisan deal that preserved the filibuster and averted the so-called nuclear option, but some conservatives on the party's right flank are grumbling at the cost.

Republicans agreed to drop their filibuster of a handful of President Obama's nominees, and in exchange, the majority Democrats dropped plans to change Senate rules that would have eliminated the minority's ability to block non-judicial executive branch appointments. The Democrats and the administration also agreed to pull two of the president's most controversial nominees and replace them with new picks.

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is still threatening to go nuclear in the future if he deems a GOP filibuster of an Obama nominee unreasonable and unwarranted, leaving some Tea Party-affiliated Republicans questioning what they gained by maintaining their right to block future appointees. The Obama nominees who finally won a confirmation vote as a result of compromise included Labor Secretary nominee Thomas Perez, whom many Republicans find particularly unfit for the post.

"What's the point of having the filibuster if you can't use it?" Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told the Washington Examiner. "If what we're being told is, you have it but you can't use it, then technically you don't really have it."

Reid's threat was referred to as the "nuclear option" because he would have sidestepped the Senate rule requiring 67 votes to change any of the chamber's parliamentary rules and pushed through a change with 51 votes. Democrats have 54 votes — 55 with Vice Joe President Biden's tie-breaking vote — and Reid insisted he had the votes to weaken the filibuster, had he chosen to move forward.

Had the majority leader not altered course, the Republicans were vowing to bring all Senate business to a "screeching halt," no small threat in a chamber that requires the unanimous consent of all 100 senators to conduct even routine business. That showdown was averted only at the 11th hour when leaders in both parties settled on the compromise.

But Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, opposed the deal, suggesting that the Republicans emerged from this battle weaker politically than they would have been had they refused to back down, even if Reid carried through with the nuclear option, something Lee didn't think he would do.

"If you move in this direction, you may end up giving up what you would lose if they did in fact go nuclear," Lee said. "But you never get to find out whether they were, in fact, bluffing. ... We'll never know."

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was less diplomatic in a tweet posted the day the compromise was approved: "Today, re: the so-called nuclear option, Senate Republicans preserved the right to surrender in the future."

The compromise had the support of the full GOP leadership team, including reliable conservative stalwarts like Conference Chairman John Thune, R-S.D.; Policy Committee Chairman John Barrasso,R-Wyo., and a majority of rank-and-file senators with solid conservative voting records. The deal also was backed by Sen. Rand Paul, a Tea Party favorite from Kentucky, who said he he has no intention of dropping his hold on Obama's nominee to lead the FBI, James Comey.

Paul said the agreement protected his right to filibuster presidential appointments and that Reid's outstanding threat to go nuclear hasn't changed his view on blocking White House nominees, which he does from time to time to force the administration to provide his office with information.

"I think it's a bad idea to lessen the use of the filibuster," Paul said. "I think it's a very useful tool."

The compromise centered around Republicans releasing their hold on Richard Cordray, who was finally confirmed on Tuesday to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — and forcing Obama to drop two of nominees to the National Labor Relations Board that he appointed during a disputed congressional recess. A federal court declared those appointments unconstitutional, and Republicans worried that confirming the original labor board nominees could derail the on-going court case.

Meanwhile, one senior GOP aide emphasized that the deal did not involve Perez, who already had enough Republican votes in the bank to overcome a filibuster.

Republican supporters of the compromise insist they'll continue to invoke the filibuster to block any Obama nominees to whom they object, regardless of Reid's standing threat to go nuclear. But they said refusing to negotiate with Democrats over the issue could have done irrevocably damaged to the Senate.

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