Mel Watt. (AP Photo/ J. Scott Applewhite)
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had a simple demand for his Republican colleagues: give all seven stalled nominees to the executive branch an up-or-down vote, or Democrats will change the Senate rules so all executive branch nominees are immune from a filibuster.
Tuesday morning, Reid announced that Republicans caved almost entirely. According to a Senate aide, the deal is as follows: all seven positions will receive an up-or-down vote, but the two nominees to the National Labor Relations Board must be switched out for two alternate people whom the White House is free to pick. Nothing in the agreement precludes Democrats from changing the rules in the future if Republican obstruction continues.
Right away, the Senate agreed to move forward with the nomination of Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and with Republican help that motion got seventy-one votes.
One might raise two quibbles with this deal: the first is that the two NLRB nominees are replaced. However, I am told that not only will Republicans have no say in their replacement, but organized labor will have a very strong voice in this process, and that the nominees must be fast-tracked and approved by August 27. While that is certainly unfortunate for the two individual nominees in question, the final outcome could be an even more labor-friendly NLRB.
Nothing is official until it’s official, so this bears watching. But based on what we know today, the nominee rotation here was simply a face-saving measure for Republicans.
Another concern is that the GOP has still reserved the right to filibuster future Obama nominations—and that is certainly a valid worry, given past history.
From a political perspective, Reid couldn’t really pull the “nuclear” trigger after Republicans gave him everything he asked for. So the paramount concern for progressives here is that Reid must keep this threat alive if Republicans block another executive branch nomination.
Reid has the fifty-one votes to change the rules and prevent filibusters on executive nominations—or, at the very least, Republicans certainly believe that he does—and if Reid stays strong and operates with this leverage, then effectively he has already performed the nuclear option.
An excellent test of this resolve will come shortly. On Thursday, the Senate Banking Committee will vote on the nomination of Mel Watt to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency. The full Senate will then consider the nomination. Republicans have not raised a single valid concern with Watt’s credentials, but nevertheless most oppose him and Wall Street analysts think that there’s only a 25 percent chance of confirmation.