Senate Republicans revived the debate over filibuster reform on Thursday, by blocking the nomination of U.S. Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC) to lead the Federal Housing Authority and the confirmation of Patricia Millet to the United States Appeals Court for Washington D.C.
While the GOP’s moves to block Watt and Millet are part of a larger ploy by Republicans on Capitol Hill to block any and all of the president’s nominees for a variety of reasons, Senate Democrats may now decide to bypass the 60-vote majority needed to overcome a filibuster by employing the so-called “nuclear option.” If Democrats move forward with this strategy, they will change Senate rules so nominees can be confirmed with a 51-vote majority, not the current 60 votes needed to thwart a filibuster.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) made it clear in July 2013 that the nuclear option will remain on the table if Senate Republicans continue to block presidential appointees. After a making a deal in which Democrats dropped filibuster reform and Republicans agreed to approve Tom Perez as labor secretary, along with several other nominees, Reid told the group Organizing for Action that the nuclear option “can always come back.”
At this point, the tactic appears to be on the table. Vice President Joe Biden, who attended the confirmation hearing in his role as president of the Senate, told reporters that changing the filibuster rules is “worth considering.” He later added: “Mel Watt is absolutely, totally, thoroughly qualified, and it’s a gigantic disappointment.”
Senate Democrats reacted with “sadness” to the blocking of Rep. Watt’s confirmation, perhaps because, as the Washington Post points out, no sitting member of Congress has been denied confirmation to a Cabinet position since before the Civil War.
Why now do Senate Republicans think it’s necessary to take these actions?
For some GOP senators, the decision to filibuster lies in partisan politics. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), for one, explained that his decision to move forward with the filibuster was rooted in his fear that the Democrat Watt will be open to future bailouts.
“America needs someone with technical expertise and experience to run Fannie and Freddie’s conservator and ensure that we don’t repeat the same mistakes that led to the last financial crisis,” McConnell said. “And taxpayers need someone who will protect against future bailouts. This is the second FHFA nominee that President Obama has sent who did not meet those standards.”
Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) similarly said, “He is a good man up for the wrong job.”
Blocking Millet was another exercise of the minority’s power. Among the judges on the court who regularly hear cases, the U.S. Appeals Court is currently split evenly along party lines, with four judges appointed by Republicans and four by Democrats. There are also semi-retired judges on the court, the majority of whom were appointed by Republicans. The court, however, has three vacant seats, which the president has the power to fill, provided his nominees are approved by the Senate.
Senate Republicans argue there is no need to fill the three vacant seats because the court has a light caseload. They’ve also accused the president of trying to pack the court with Democrats as a partisan political move.
Democrats, on the other hand, point out that the United States Appeals Court for Washington D.C. is second only to the Supreme Court in terms of its position in the judiciary system, and it’s important to appoint judges to the vacant seats. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) views the filibuster by Senate Republicans as another detrimental partisan ploy by the GOP. “The judiciary is too important to play partisan games with,” Feinstein said. “And that’s exactly what’s going on here.”
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