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Reid Hints at Using ‘Nuclear Option’ on Judges

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Friday that unless nominations start moving swiftly through the Senate, another round of dramatic rules changes may be in the offing.

The Nevada Democrat said that while he was “happy” with the modest rules changes adopted in January on a bipartisan basis, the number of pending judicial nominations led him to warn his colleagues of the potential for the chamber’s rules to be modified at any point in the year, not just at the opening of a new Congress.

“All within the sound of my voice, including my Democratic senators and the Republican senators who I serve with, should understand that we as a body have the power on any given day to change the rules with a simple majority, and I will do that if necessary,” Reid said on Nevada Public Radio.

Reid last year adopted the position that rules could be changed using a simple majority — instead of a filibuster-proof majority — if done on the first day of the legislative session. But these recent comments appear to signal that he believes he has an even broader ability to reshape the chamber’s rules.

In the interview, Reid said he discussed Senate business Friday with President Barack Obama and New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer, the No. 3 in the Democratic leadership hierarchy.

“I’m a very patient man. Last Congress and this Congress, we had the opportunity to make some big changes. We made changes, but the time will tell whether they’re big enough. I’m going to wait and build a case,” Reid said. “If the Republicans in the Senate don’t start approving some judges and don’t start helping get some of these nominations done, then we’re going to have to take more action.”

Reid’s comments are similar to those of former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who in 2005 appeared prepared to take procedural steps to end the use of delay tactics against President George W. Bush’s judicial nominations. Reid vigorously opposed Frist at the time. A group of seven Republicans and seven Democrats known as the “gang of 14” cut a deal that blocked Frist from having the majority needed to deploy the “nuclear option.” In exchange for the Republicans opposing Frist’s effort, the Democrats and Republicans in the group would only back filibusters of nominees under “extraordinary circumstances.”

On a point sure to draw particular attention from the GOP, Reid said the issue he sees with delayed nominations extends beyond vacant judgeships to the nomination of Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Republicans have said repeatedly that no one will be confirmed to that post until Congress makes changes to that agency’s organizational structure. The CFPB was established under the 2010 financial regulator overhaul.

“We have not been able to confirm a person for that job. They refuse to allow us to bring that up, and — and he was recess-appointed. Now, we have the Republican-dominated D.C. Court of Appeals who have said, look, the president can’t even do recess appointments now,” Reid said. “So, we’re left with few alternatives, and we’re going to have to move forward and do something to change that.”

The D.C. Court of Appeals has long been a sore point for presidents of both parties. Obama recently had to withdraw the nomination of Caitlin Halligan to serve as a judge on the crucial appellate court after Republicans successfully filibustered her. Obama remains the only president to serve a full four-year term without successfully nominating a judge to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Guns, Budgets Also Discussed

During the wide-ranging conversation Friday with the NPR affiliate in Nevada, Reid took calls from several listeners and responded to Twitter questions. On the prospect of House-Senate negotiations on a final budget resolution, he said Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., planned to meet next week with her House counterpart, Republican Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, on reaching an agreement outside the conference committee process.

“If that bears no fruit, then I want regular order. I want a conference to be held to work out the differences between the House and the Senate,” Reid said.

Much of the interview dealt with issues relating to the gun legislation that’s due to reach the Senate floor this month. At one point, Reid talked about how personal the issue is for him, referencing his own gun ownership and his father’s suicide.

“Now, I’m here at my home in Searchlight. In the other room, I have a shotgun, I have a couple rifles, I’ve got lots of pistols, so I understand guns,” Reid said. “My father killed himself, committed suicide with a gun. So, I know a lot about guns, and there’s no easy answer to a lot of the problems we have, but we have to try. We can’t just walk away from this.”

Reid also reiterated that the final Senate package must include enhanced background checks for firearm purchases.

“We’re going to do something with background checks. Is it going to be the background checks reported out of the judicial committee? I hope so,” he said, before adding that the language could very well look different. Negotiations continue on how to craft an expansion of the background check system in a way that can win votes from both Democrats and Republicans.

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