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McCain Looks to Defuse ‘Nuclear’ Threat

Sen. John McCain finds himself once again pushing his colleagues to avoid giving fodder to Democrats seeking to use the “nuclear option” to change Senate rules with a simple majority.

The Arizona Republican’s latest endeavor is to persuade GOP senators to allow the appointment of conferees to hammer out a House- Senate budget agreement without binding instructions against raising the debt limit.

But his efforts have yet to win over the GOP’s tea party wing.

“This is not a trivial objection. I’m not asking that the key lime pie be made the official pie of the United States. I’m not asking for some ridiculous thing. This is the debt limit,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said on the floor, splitting with McCain.

Floor debates over budget procedure are revealing division among GOP senators over how to operate in the minority, with McCain clearly playing a different game from Rubio and other colleagues, including Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Mike Lee, R-Utah.

“The same people planned on filibustering the gun bill and not moving forward with it for debate,” McCain said in reference to a bid by some conservatives to block the motion to proceed to an ill-fated background check measure. “Finally, there [were] enough of us that prevailed that we moved forward with debate.”

McCain told reporters he’s trying to convince his colleagues that such maneuvers will only embolden Democrats seeking to clamp down on the ability to launch filibusters.

“It’ll give more momentum to those who want to go to 51 votes, there’s no doubt about that,” McCain said. “These people that are objecting to appointing conferees are a minority in the Republican Party.

“The House of Representatives, when I was there in the minority, basically had no power,” McCain warned, suggesting that was one of the reasons he wanted to become a senator.

Deal Unraveling

The deal brokered in January involving McCain and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., was supposed to diffuse any possibility of a nuclear rules change during the 113th Congress, but it may not hold.

“Despite the agreement we reached in January, Republican obstruction on nominees continues unabated,” Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. “I want to make the Senate work again — that is my commitment. Republicans and Democrats will have our differences over policy, but the American people expect better from their elected leaders than constant gridlock and obstruction.”

Reid echoed remarks made in 2005 by then-Majority Leader Bill Frist when the Tennessee Republican pondered an effort to reinterpret the rules to eliminate filibusters of nominations with a simple majority vote.

Reid’s statement followed a morning exchange he had on the Senate floor with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that foretold some of what’s to come between now and July, when the majority leader could once again push the envelope, provided he can find 51 votes among the Democrats to do so.

Levin said he still opposes the nuclear option but said it’s too early to speculate on what might actually take place come July.

Democrats are making moves to set up the standoff. Reid delayed a test vote on Richard Cordray’s nomination to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau until after the Senate considers an immigration overhaul, and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Wednesday set up floor consideration of contested nominations to the National Labor Relations Board.

Reid took the step of setting up a Thursday cloture vote on Sri Srinivasan, President Barack Obama’s choice for a seat on what’s generally regarded as the nation’s second-highest court.

Republicans are crying foul. “These continued threats to use the nuclear option point to the majority’s own culture of intimidation here in the Senate,” McConnell said. “Their view is that you had better confirm the people we want, when we want them, or we’ll break the rules of the Senate to change the rules so you can’t stop us.”

Senior Senate GOP aides have noted the number of times Reid has filed cloture on nominations to speed up the confirmation process, even when Republicans have already agreed to hold up-or-down votes at a later point.

“I’m always amused when a Senator who led serial filibusters against nominees in the Bush administration is in high dudgeon over ONE judicial nominee being stopped,” McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said in an email.

McConnell sought to emphasize that point by making his own consent request to schedule the Srinivasan confirmation vote after the Memorial Day recess without requiring a 60-vote threshold for cloture.

Democrats favoring broader changes, including requirements for talking filibusters of legislative business, say they would view July action on nomination rules as only a start.

“I’m ready to go with the rules changes the minute that Harry Reid presses the button,” said Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., who declared himself a revolutionary on filibuster changes after a minority blocked the key amendment on background checks. “If the beginning of rules change is limited to nominations, I think that’s as good a place to start as any.”

The HELP Committee action came despite ranking member Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., saying that the NLRB nominees already serving as recess appointees should resign because of an ongoing legal dispute about the Constitution’s provisions regarding recess appointments.

“In speaking of President Reagan’s recess appointments, the late Sen. Robert Byrd on the Senate floor said in 1985: ‘The president’s lawyers know full well the recess appointments clause in the Constitution was not created as a political loophole to thwart the will of the Senate,’” Alexander said, referencing the legendary West Virginia Democrat.

HELP Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, vehemently disagreed with Alexander’s logic, saying the two nominees considered Wednesday — who received recess appointments in 2012 — are well-qualified.

“It’s an unfair attack on two dedicated servicemembers,” Harkin said. “I hope we can all put politics aside and give all five nominees the fair consideration they deserve.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska was the only Republican to back the contested appointees, Sharon Block and Richard F. Griffin Jr.

Elham Khatami and Meredith Shiner contributed to this report.

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