Is Harry Reid About to Go Nuclear on the Filibuster?

| Mon Jul. 15, 2013 10:26 PM EDT

Harry Reid is pissed. Republicans are filibustering everyone in sight, and he's finally had enough. They've filibustered a Medicare director. They've filibustered a Fed nominee. They've filibustered a secretary of Defense and a CIA director. They've filibustered a head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. They've filibustered two nominees to the National Labor Relations Board. And those are just the filibusters that have been high-profile enough to generate headlines.

So now he's threatening to use the nuclear option to do away with filibusters of presidential nominations. This is by far the most defensible change in the filibuster rules, since it doesn't affect legislation and it doesn't affect judges who hold their seats for life. It only allows the president to staff his own administration with the people he wants.

Or, in some cases, to merely have the federal government operate at all. You see, the nominees that really have Reid seeing red are the ones for the NLRB and the CFPB. Republicans don't actually have any special objection to any of them. They've just decided to shut down those two agencies via filibuster. The NLRB can't legally operate at all without a quorum, and several important CFPB functions also can't be implemented at all unless the agency has a director. So these agencies of the US government—agencies duly created by Congress and signed into law by the president—are effectively being eliminated by a minority of one house of Congress.

That's what's different this time around. Legislation has been filibustered for a long time. Judges have been filibustered for a long time. Republicans are doing it more now than in the past, but they're not doing something that's fundamentally new. Executive branch nominees are different. Filibusters of presidential appointments have been rare, and they've never been used to shut down entire arms of the government.

So Reid is finally fighting back, and good for him. Senators of both parties met informally Monday night in the Old Senate Chamber, but it's unclear if they made any progress toward a compromise. Reid himself seemed pessimistic, but apparently other senators thought an agreement was possible. For the moment, though, Reid is still planning to hold votes Tuesday on the stalled presidential nominees, with a promise that if they aren't confirmed he's going to go nuclear. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: In the end, Republicans caved on the CFPB and the NLRB nominees, and Reid agreed to leave the filibuster alone. Dave Weigel has the details here.