Going Nuclear on GOP Obstruction
On three recent occasions — January 2011, January 2013, and July 2013 — Senate Democrats threatened to make changes to the Senate filibuster rules in order to stop Republicans from obstructing even the most routine business of the Senate and slow-walking or simply blocking the president’s nominees. Each time, Democrats agreed to very modest changes to the rules or even simply a gentleman’s agreement with Republicans and each time Republicans broke their word and went back to their same old obstructionist ways.
In the past few weeks, things have gotten even worse than usual. Senate Republicans have embarked on an unprecedented campaign of obstruction:
- Republicans blocked the nomination of Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC) to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency, the agency that oversees mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. He is the first African-American nominated to head the agency and the first sitting Member of Congress denied confirmation since the Reconstruction Era.
- Republicans blocked three highly-qualified nominees — two women and an African-American — to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is the second most powerful court in America and which is currently dominated by conservative, Republican-appointed judges. Aside from complaining that one nominee openly supports abortion rights some four decades after the Supreme Court affirmed that abortion is a constitutionally-protected medical procedure, Republicans offered basically no substantive opposition to the nominees. They simply indicated they will not allow President Obama to name anyone to fill the three vacant seats on the court, which even Chief Justice John Roberts agrees must be filled.
- Leading Republicans have already announced their plans to block two more top Obama nominees: Janet Yellen to head the Federal Reserve (the first woman in the world ever selected to lead a central bank) and Jeh Johnson, the first African-American nominated to lead the Department of Homeland Security.
Republicans have reveled in this disturbing pattern of partisan obstruction, daring Democrats to change the Senate rules in order to eliminate the filibuster on nominations.
Well, it appears Republicans have made their bed and now they may have to lie in it.
A parade of Democrats, including some who have previously expressed strong opposition to the idea, have come forward in recent days to support changing the Senate rules:
- Sen. Barbara Boxer ((D-CA): “I am very open to changing the rules for nominees. … 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.”
- Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA): “If ever there’s evidence for [a rules change], it is now.” Feinstein said she changed her position after a compromise deal reached last year to push through nominees did not stop obstruction from leaving crucial seats vacant. She told the Huffington Post it is “unconscionable” that Senate Republicans are now allowing a vote on Obama’s cabinet and judicial nominees.
- Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA): “So far they have shut down the government, they have filibustered people [President Obama] has nominated to fill out his administration and they are now filibustering judges to block him from filling any of the vacancies with highly qualified people: We need to call out these filibusters for what they are: Naked attempts to nullify the results of the last election.” She added, “If Republicans continue to filibuster these highly qualified nominees for no reason other than to nullify the president’s constitutional authority, then senators not only have the right to change the filibuster, senators have a duty to change the filibuster rules. We cannot turn our backs on the Constitution. We cannot abdicate our oath of office.”
- Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), one of the original proponents of filibuster reform, said recently: “The Senate rules must change … This is a war on the other two branches of government and their ability to do the jobs the American people need them to do.”
- Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) is another longtime supporter of filibuster reform. He said last month: “We keep getting up to the edge of it, and then we make some, quote, gentleman’s agreement … and then you find out the gentleman’s agreement doesn’t hold. … I’ve been so frustrated by it.”
- Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV): The Senate majority leader holds the ultimate authority on whether Democrats invoke the nuclear option. He said Tuesday he is actively weighing a rules change, and won’t accept a deal to avert the nuclear option that includes anything less than confirmation of all three D.C. Circuit nominees stalled over the past few weeks. In July, Democrats scored a short-term victory with a deal to confirm seven executive branch nominees in exchange for dropping filibuster reform. But just a few months later, they ended up facing the same sort of Republican obstruction.
BOTTOM LINE: We simply cannot allow a minority in Congress to retroactively veto laws and the results of elections. This is unfair, makes a mockery of our constitutional system, and represents the worst kind of partisan gridlock that the American people are sick and tired of. It’s time for the GOP’s unprecedented campaign of obstruction to end.
The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.