Reid set to go nuclear over judges

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid appears to be laying the groundwork for a vote later this year on changing Senate rules on filibusters to allow for a simple majority vote to confirm judges. The plan would not affect votes on Supreme Court nominees.

Reid is playing with fire, and he knows it. If the Senate can change the rules on filibusters, they can change them on anything. Democrats are not stupid - even if they play stupid on TV. They know that they will not always be in the majority and would find the filibuster very useful to block GOP legislation they don't like.

But Reid has lost patience with Republicans. Also, several Democrats who opposed filibuster reform in the past are reluctantly coming to the conclusion that going nuclear is the only viable option:

Senate Democrats who were previously opposed to changing filibuster rules via the "nuclear option" are so fed up with GOP obstruction of the president's nominees that they now say they want to go nuclear.

"I am very open to changing the rules for nominees," Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) told The Huffington Post. "I was not before, because I felt we could work with them. But it's gotten to an extreme situation where really qualified people can't get an up-or-down vote."

"I do now," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) told reporters when asked if she supports filibuster reform. She said she changed her mind on the issue after watching as a bipartisan deal to let President Barack Obama's nominees get votes, struck over the summer, went nowhere.

"We had a meeting in the Old Senate Chamber and everybody had an opportunity ... to really express themselves," Feinstein said of the summer meeting. "I thought it was going to bring about a new day. The new day lasted one week, and then we're back to the usual politics."

She called it "unconscionable" for a president not to be able to have his cabinet team and judicial appointees get votes. She specifically singled out Republicans' treatment of Obama's three nominees to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. All three have been filibustered in the past few weeks. In total, there are now 21 nominees either currently being filibustered or who were filibustered and ultimately withdrew.

"This kind of behavior usually happens in the last six months of a president's tenure," Feinstein said. "But not now."

Neither Boxer nor Feinstein could say whether they thought Democrats had the 51 votes needed to invoke the so-called nuclear option, or the use of archaic Senate procedures to change the rules to strip the minority party of its ability to filibuster nominees. But both said the level of frustration among Democrats is at peak levels right now.

Bot sides have to know by now that what goes around, comes around. Democrats should take special note due to their own filibustering of Bush judicial nominees in 2005. That debate leads us to today's lesson in hypocrisy as The Hill recalls the 2005 debate when Republicans were in the majority:

Senate Democrats and Republicans find themselves in reversed roles, compared to eight years ago, when then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) threatened to go nuclear over President George W. Bush's stalled judicial nominees.

Democrats warned that changing the Senate's practices through a ruling of the chair sustained by a simple majority vote would destroy the institution.

"I would never, ever consider breaking the rules to change the rules," Reid told colleagues in April 2005 during the Senate debate.

"Ultimately, this is about removing the last check in Washington against complete abuse of power," he added.

At the time, McConnell, the Senate GOP whip, was fully on board with the plan to change the rules unilaterally.

"I never announce my whip count. But I'm telling you, there's no doubt in my mind - and I'm a pretty good counter of votes - that we have the votes we need," McConnell said. "And that step will be taken sometime in the near future at the determination of the majority leader."

The GOP leader recently expressed relief that Frist did not pull the trigger on the rules change.

"Look, I'm glad we didn't do it," he said in July. "We went to the brink, and we pulled back because cooler heads prevailed."

I can see losing the filibuster to prevent the gratuitous blocking of presidential appointments. But the problem, as I mentioned, is that there's a very good chance that some future Senate - with either party in the majority - will want to expand the nuclear option beyond judges. The filibuster is a brake on the power of the majority and forces compromise to take into account the concerns of the minority. That's the intent of the rule, even if it doesn't always work that way in practice.

It doesn't appear that Reid has the votes to go nuclear quite yet. But sometime before sine die adjournment, he will probably call for the vote.

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