Senate Democratic leaders who have grown frustrated with the repeated Republican rejections of President Obama's judicial nominations are seriously weighing a historic change to the chamber's rules that would neuter use of the filibuster by the minority party.
"I'm considering looking at the rules," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Tuesday following a closed-door meeting with Democratic senators.
The rules change was a main topic of conversation at the meeting, Democrats said as they left. Some Democrats have already been contacted by Reid about supporting the rule change. Reid needs 51 votes to change the rules and Democrats control 55 Senate seats, but some Democrats are wary of changing the way the chamber is governed, in part because the rule change could be used against them if Republicans take control of the Senate in the 2014 elections.
"I don't know what the count is, but [Sen. Reid] called me and I said yes, I've changed my mind," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., an earlier opponent of a filibuster change, said. "We need to do it."
The rules change would curb the use of the filibuster only on the presidential nominations of judges to courts below the U.S. Supreme Court. The filibuster would still be allowed on legislation.
But Reid also said the filibuster limits could be extended to other nominees, including Rep. Mel Watt, who the GOP last month blocked from becoming the head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency.
"I think it would be very unfair not to give this good man an up or down vote," Reid said Tuesday.
Republicans can demand a 60-vote threshold to move to any presidential nomination, stymieing Democrats efforts to advance them for a vote. Reid is considering lowering the threshold to 51 votes on judges and perhaps other nominees, which would essentially eliminate the GOP's power to block certain presidential picks.
Reid on Tuesday expressed frustration with the string of recent Republican rejections of circuit court nominations. Senate Republicans on Monday blocked a third nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Republicans were quick to warn that Democrats may regret such a move, especially given the political landscape.
Ten Senate Democratic seats are competitive in the 2014 election, and Republicans need to take away just six of them to reclaim control of the Senate.
That means if Democrats change the rules, Republicans would have a much easier time advancing their own judicial nominees once they're in control of both the Senate and White House.
"The reality is, we believe that the Democrats need to think twice because what comes around goes around," Senate Minority Whip Jon Cornyn, R-Texas, told the Washington Examiner. "With Republicans in charge, confirmation of a Supreme Court Justice, let's just say, with 51 Republican votes, is a prospect that I don't think they should disregard."
Reid would not say whether he has enough Democratic support to change the rule.
Rep. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is among those who remain skeptical of the proposed change, although he is leaning toward backing it. His predecessor, the late Sen. Robert Byrd, a Democrat, was a staunch opponent of the rules change, known as the "nuclear option."
"We are looking at it," Manchin said when asked about his support. He pointed to Republican opposition to Democratic proposals as the reason for gridlock on Capitol Hill.
"I'm very open-minded to it," Manchin said. "You've got to operate the place."