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Sen. Reid Threatens Nuclear Option To Confirm Nominees

May 28, 2013
Originally published on May 28, 2013 7:59 am

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Good morning. Let's look at one area where Congress can exert its authority over the White House. We're talking about confirmation votes. A batch of President Obama's nominees are heading out of committee and onto a vote by the full Senate. Among them are President Obama's choices to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Environmental Protection Agency and also his nominee as Labor Secretary.

As NPR's Ailsa Chang reports, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has warned if things don't move quickly, he may force a Senate rule change to limit filibusters.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Usually, there's this little perk that comes with winning a presidential election - you get to pick the people who work for you. At least, that's been the working theory the last two and a half centuries. Unlike naming judges who don't work for you, and have life tenure, an executive branch nominee is part of the president's team.

SEN. BARBARA BOXER: When it comes to allowing a president to pick his cabinet and pick his leadership team, that ought to be a no-brainer.

CHANG: Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California is a little peeved at Republicans right now. She's been trying to usher through the confirmation of Gina McCarthy to lead the EPA. Republicans made McCarthy respond to more than 1,100 questions - more than any executive nominee in history has ever gotten. Boxer was so annoyed, when the top Republican on her committee tried to keep arguing about McCarthy, she told David Vitter of Louisiana to just hush up.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONFIRMATION HEARING)

SEN. DAVID VITTER: Madame Chair, can I briefly respond?

BOXER: No. No, we are not going to do that.

VITTER: I'm not...

BOXER: No. We are not...

VITTER: Madame Chair, you directly...

BOXER: No, we're not going to do that.

VITTER: You directly responded to my letter.

BOXER: Yes, I did. And I have every right to do that.

VITTER: And in fact, you stated some things that are just untrue. And I'd like...

BOXER: Well, then can you hold your remarks until after we vote because there's certain senators that must leave. If you would please, I will sit here for hours and listen to you.

CHANG: All the Republicans on the committee voted against McCarthy. They say they didn't have problems with McCarthy's actual qualifications - they just think the EPA wasn't transparent enough in sharing information.

THOMAS MANN: It's unprecedented. Certainly individual nominees to the president's Cabinet have on occasion been opposed.

CHANG: But Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution says what's increasingly common now is for Republicans to block executive branch nominees just because they just don't like the underlying policies that nominee's going to enforce. Take Richard Cordray who's been waiting for his confirmation since July 2011 to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Several Republicans think the agency should be headed by a board, not by a single person, so they're not voting for Cordray. It reminds Mann of pre-Civil War times.

MANN: I really do call it the new nullification because it's similar. If a state didn't like a law, according to John C. Calhoun, it should just ignore it.

CHANG: Labor Secretary nominee Tom Perez is also looking at a bruising fight. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee is the highest-ranking Republican on the committee that considered Perez. He justifies Republican opposition because he says according to the Constitution, it's their job.

SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER: The Founders did not want a king, so they created a Congress. And they gave us this power of advise and consent. That's what we're doing. We're asking - Mr. Perez has some very serious questions.

CHANG: So the big question now is what's Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid going to do to get confirmations through? He's suggesting he might whip out something called the nuclear option. It would allow him to change the Senate rules by a simple majority instead of the traditional two-thirds majority. And the new rule he'd want is that no executive branch nominee can be blocked by a filibuster.

Some Democrats pushed Reid to do this at the start of the new Congress four months ago. He didn't then, and he's being coy now about whether he'll really go nuclear.

SEN. HARRY REID: I am hopeful and confident that this will work out. We're not fighting just to be fighting.

CHANG: The fear is the nuclear option may be too extreme. Congressional scholars say the filibuster is not all bad. Historically, just the mere threat of a filibuster can get the two sides to actually produce bipartisan agreements. Carl Tobias teaches law at the University of Richmond.

CARL TOBIAS: I think the feeling is - and the reason it's called the nuclear option - is that that would change the character of the Senate, that it is a body that's deliberative and has always honored its traditions.

CHANG: Reid says he definitely won't be using the nuclear option before immigration legislation gets resolved because he doesn't want to anger too many Republicans right now. Which means, it will likely be July before these high profile nominees learn their fate. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.