Remember High Noon? No, of course you don’t. Nobody these days seems to have heard of a movie made before 1988 or so. But you get the concept. And in the Senate, metaphorically, it’s about 11:45 right now. Today Harry Reid will finally start the clock ticking on 11 Obama-administration presidential nominations that have been languishing in the Senate because of Republican obstruction—and forcing a long-overdue showdown over Senate rules that have been flouted and basically destroyed by the GOP since Barack Obama took office. With any luck, this will someday prove to have been a pivotal moment in Senate history, leading to radical reforms of the ossified culture and rules of the chamber where things go to die.
If you’ve been following Capitol Hill politics at all, you know that Republican senators have held up an inordinate number of Obama’s judicial- and especially executive-branch appointees. Look at some numbers. On judges, Obama has gotten 81 percent of his nominations confirmed. Bill Clinton got 82 percent. But George Bush got 94 percent. In other words, the Democrats were less obstructionist toward him than the Republicans were toward the last two Democratic presidents.
On executive nominations, the numbers are far more striking. By the July 4 recess, the Senate of this current Congress had confirmed 34 Obama nominees. In a parallel time frame in the middle of Bush’s presidency, the Senate sent 118 Bush nominees through (even though the GOP controlled the Senate then, remember, the Democrats always had more than 40 seats and thus could have filibustered anyone they chose). Nominees have been waiting an average of 260 days to get a vote. The Republicans conducted the first-ever filibuster of a nominee to head the Pentagon and the first-ever filibuster of a nominee simply because they didn’t like the agency he was named to head (Richard Cordray, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; Senate historian Don Ritchie said, “We searched through past cases and could not find anything that fit the current circumstance”). Both sides play games along these lines when the other team has the White House, but Mitch McConnell has pushed it to heretofore unmapped extremes, aware that there exist enough examples that he can paint a false picture of equivalency and the public will just throw up their hands and say, “They all do it.”
Finally, Reid has said enough. So here’s what’s going to happen starting today. Reid is going to file what are called cloture motions regarding 11 executive-branch nominees. Cordray is one, Labor nominee Tom Perez is another, and EPA nominee Gina McCarthy another. Then there are three nominees to the five-member National Labor Relations Board, plus a handful of others. The filing of a cloture motion sets a clock ticking, and at the end of the prescribed time period, votes will be taken. The motions will “ripen,” in the rather charming legislative argot applied to this aggressively charmless process, next Tuesday.
And so, next Tuesday, the Senate will hold these votes. It looks as if Perez and McCarthy (she was blocked once previously) might have the 60 votes (remember—60, not 50) needed to get through. Cordray? Big question mark. The NLRB Three? Bigger question mark still. In comments yesterday, McConnell sure made it sound as if the NLRB appointees were the most important to him. Labor may have been down on the canvas for 30 years now, but evidently McConnell and the people who finance his actions want to make sure it stays there.
Then, if the Republicans vote no on most of these nominees, as assumed, Reid will have a few options. The most dramatic? Bring a rule change to the floor—which can itself pass with 51 votes—that would permit presidential appointees to go through on a simple-majority vote.
Imagine that! Democracy! In the United States Senate?
The Senate, its unusual recent success on immigration notwithstanding, rarely functions anymore.
There is and will be some question as to whether Reid will have the 51 votes. Some of the old bulls don’t like messing with the rules. Carl Levin of Michigan, who is retiring, is one such. Vermont’s Pat Leahy might be another. Then there are some moderates for whom the vote might be difficult not for institutional and process reasons but more straightforward political ones. The fact that the EPA is not Arkansas’s or West Virginia’s favorite federal agency is probably not lost on Mark Pryor or Joe Manchin, for example. Reid can afford to lose four. It could be close, but the betting now is that the votes are there.
Yeah, yeah, it’s a shame it’s come to this. But the unalterable fact is that it has come to this. When I read a quote like this from McConnell of all people, I don’t know whether to laugh or vomit: “This Pandora’s box, once opened, will be utilized again and again by future majorities—and it will make the meaningful consensus building that has served our nation so well a relic of the past.” McConnell referring to “meaningful consensus building” is like the Muslim Brotherhood bewailing the flaunting of Egypt’s Constitution.
Back when Mohammad Khatami was the president of Iran on the promise of a host of liberal reforms he pledged to undertake but never followed through on, a joke went around Iran that Khatami was the like the man whose wife was still a virgin, because he kept saying, “I’ll do it, I’ll do it,” but he never does. With regard to Senate reform, Harry Reid has been saying “I’ll do it” for a couple of years now. Well, he’s doing it. It might lead to a Senate version of holy war. The Senate, its unusual recent success on immigration notwithstanding, rarely functions anymore. The reason is simple: no group in the world can function when 41 percent of its members can block anything, and even 1 percent (i.e., one senator) can effectively block a lot of things. So get ready for high drama over the next few days—and hope that it’s just the beginning.