POLITICS: PennAve

'Nuclear option' gives new life to Obama's regulatory agenda

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Politics,White House,Brian Hughes,Barack Obama,Senate,President,Harry Reid,PennAve,Energy and Environment,Nuclear Option

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's decision to trigger the so-called “nuclear option” and change the upper chamber's filibuster rules created a new political landscape for President Obama, easing the path for him to achieve key second-term goals.

The president's executive nominees -- and by extension, his sweeping regulatory agenda -- no longer face the same filibuster threat from Republicans that torpedoed much of his progressive blueprint.

Obama's trio of picks for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and selections to lead the Federal Reserve, Department of Homeland Security and Federal Housing Finance Agency are near-certainties for confirmation.

The more long-lasting effect, however, is on the president’s clear push to sidestep Congress and act on climate change, jobs initiatives, education standards, financial regulations and perhaps most importantly, administrative changes to Obamacare.

“It's pretty arcane, and it's hard for many people outside the Beltway to understand -- but it's a big moment,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, director of the Congressional Budget Office under former President George W. Bush, of Obama's new playing field.

“There hasn’t been much legislative success for the administration in years. Obama can more quickly and easily fill agencies and push back challenges to the rulemaking. The results will be felt across the policy spectrum,” he added.

In changing decades of Senate practice, Democrats in the upper chamber effectively defused the GOP's chief weapon for blocking nominees they believed would implement big-government policies.

While not eliminating the filibuster, the nuclear option essentially allows Obama's executive and non-Supreme Court judicial appointments to receive a simple majority vote. With Democrats controlling 55 Senate seats, Obama's nominees should sail to confirmation on a party-line vote.

From a policy standpoint, the repercussions of the rule change could extend well beyond Obama’s presidency.

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, generally viewed as the nation’s second-most influential judicial body, is now evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. With Obama’s three picks likely to be confirmed, the court will take a left-leaning approach on an array of regulations, analysts predict.

With little appetite for climate change legislation on Capitol Hill, the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed the first-ever restrictions on greenhouse gases from power plants, a move likely to prompt a flurry of lawsuits that could take years to resolve.

“It gives a boost to the president's energy and environmental agenda, simply because the D.C. Circuit is generally where lawsuits are heard over the biggest and most controversial cases,” said Frank O'Donnell, president of the nonpartisan Clean Air Watch.

O’Donnell, however, warned of a potential boomerang effect if Republicans win back the Senate in 2014 or the White House in 2016.

“It will certainly spur the GOP on to pay the Democrats back,” the environmental advocate said. “As the old saying goes, paybacks are hell.”

In addition to environmental regulations, the D.C. Circuit could weigh in on legal challenges to Obamacare, as well as decisions by the National Labor Relations Board and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The D.C. court has been a constant thorn in Obama's side. Judges struck down an Obamacare mandate requiring employers to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives and challenged recess appointments made by the president.

That Obama chose to endorse the nuclear option reveals just how unlikely the White House views the passage of major legislation ahead of the 2014 midterm elections. Obama is well aware that the drastic move on presidential nominations risks poisoning the well with Republicans already suspicious of his ambitious second-term agenda.

In the face of chronic gridlock, Obama gave Reid, the Nevada Democrat, the go-ahead to pursue a game-changing tactic he once lambasted as a junior senator from Illinois.

“Post-nuclear option, and looking at the reality of the paralysis in D.C., Obama is going to have any number of levers at his disposal,” Christopher Lehane, a Democratic strategist and former aide to President Bill Clinton, said. “If you're in the Obama White House, you know this potentially has a legacy impact that will far outlive the next three years.”

The White House, however, dismissed the notion it was attempting an end run around Congress.

"This is about getting basic work done," insisted a senior administration official. "Republicans forced this action with an unprecedented level of obstructionism. Enough was enough."

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