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‘Nuclear’ Fallout Slows Senate, Briefly Delays Recess (Updated)

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Updated 8:30 p.m. | Fallout from last year’s “nuclear” rules change trumped the proverbial smell of jet fumes in the Senate this week, but only for a while.  

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., had called a live quorum to summon senators to the floor and declare on the official record what he had said earlier in the afternoon, that he wouldn’t punt on the nomination of Michelle T. Friedland to be a judge on the Ninth Circuit.  

“We’ve wasted so much time that we could be working on important issues, and Republicans come to the floor [and say], ‘We want amendments,'” Reid said. “One reason we don’t do that kind of stuff is cause we spend so much time on this.”  

Later in the day, Reid set a series of nomination votes for 5 p.m. Friday, but Senate Democrats say it is now anticipated those votes will be postponed until April 28, in what represents a retreat for Reid.  

Reid had been renewing his argument from a December interview with CQ Roll Call , in which he said that he had used procedural tools at his disposal to clamp down on the amendment process, in part because of time spent burning the clock on nominations.  

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, was on the floor prepared to block Reid’s efforts to yield back time for a quick Thursday getaway, referring back to last year’s rules standoff and use of the “nuclear option” to change Senate precedents with just a simple majority. That allowed for Democrats to get most of President Barack Obama’s nominees through to confirmation without the  old 60-vote requirement to end a filibuster.  

“As the majority leader knows, we have not yielded back post-cloture time on judicial nominations since the so-called nuclear option was triggered last November. We have followed the rules of the United States Senate,” Grassley said. “So, there are 30 hours of post-cloture debate on this nomination.”  

Grassley, the ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, offered a counter-proposal that would have allowed a Thursday debate-limiting vote on David Weil to be Wage and Hour administrator at the Labor Department, while punting confirmation of Friedland and Weil until the Senate returns from the scheduled two-week recess on April 28. Grassley and Reid, predictably, traded objections.  

“We’re slogging through … these nominations. It’s kinda slow because of the inordinate amount of time that we’re caused to eat up,” said Reid. “The longer that my friend from Iowa talks, the more reason is that maybe we should have changed the rules more than what we did.”  

Reid conceded during the floor exchanges that the scheduling situation hurts Democrats more than Republicans, since there’s no real requirement that the minority party shows up at the Capitol for the confirmation votes on Friday afternoon.  

To that point, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said, “Pigs will fly if we’re here tomorrow night.”  

The senior senator from Arizona appears to have been prescient.  

“Despite this heavy-handed behavior, he expects the minority to simply expedite consideration of, in the case of the matter we’re just discussing, a lifetime appointment,” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said. “Many of these nominees would have been confirmed last December had we not experienced this event perpetrated by the majority in a heavy-handed attempt to alter the balance, to change the nature of the Senate with a simple majority.”  

“We don’t have a rules problem, we have a behavior problem,” the Kentucky Republican added.  

“Where would we be in this country without having changed that rule?” Reid asked, noting that he received a letter Thursday from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel about vacant positions at the Pentagon.  

During the back-and-forth on the floor, Republican Whip John Cornyn of Texas tried to get consent to call up and clear for Obama a House-backed reauthorization of the “Debbie Smith Act,” a federal law that provides grants to help clear up the backlog of unprocessed rape kits.  

Reid objected to the standalone measure, noting that the Judiciary Committee had already reported out a broader justice programs bill (and that all Democratic senators were on board with passage).  

Cornyn said that he, too, supported the broader measure but that a GOP senator absent for medical reasons had concerns about the legislation, forcing the Texan to object.  

The unnamed senator is Tom Coburn, R-Okla., his office confirmed.  

Nuclear Fallout Seen Elsewhere The  nuclear option fallout also resurfaced at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where McCain protested committee approval of ambassador nominations Thursday afternoon, including George Tsunis, the nominee to be ambassador to Norway, who bungled a McCain question about the Norwegian political system at his confirmation hearing.  

“I was deprived of my right, my constitutional right of advise and consent, when they broken the rules in order to change the rules, and so I made it very abundantly and compellingly clear that we are not going to see any let up in the slowing … of the process,” McCain said after walking out of the markup. “If they want to change the rules again to 51 votes, go ahead. Go ahead, destroy this institution.  

“They deprived me of my rights, and so I made it very clear: we are not going to expedite anybody,” McCain said.  

“We have numerous ambassadors to important countries around the world, and they are not being confirmed because they’re being stalled,” Reid said on the Senate floor after that hearing. “Why couldn’t we have these people go do their work?”  

Humberto Sanchez contributed to this report.

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