Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., speaks at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Barack Obama has had a difficult time getting his nominees through the wall of Congressional approval, creating scenarios that drag out through filibusters and partisan opposition — and some Democrats have had enough.
Senate Majority leader Harry Reid is one of them.
Reid is threatening to invoke a ban on the use of filibusters for presidential nominations, all the while decreasing the votes necessary for approval — from a supermajority of 60, to the a majority of 51, a move that’s referred to as a “nuclear option” instituted by the majority party.
“We need to do something to allow government to function,” Reid told reporters after Senate Republicans effectively blocked President Barack Obama’s third appointee to the U.S. District Court of Appeals. “I’m considering looking at the rules. Let me just give a mini, mini-lecture on this. The Founding Fathers never had any place in the Constitution about filibusters or extended debate.”
The nuclear option change would create a system that would likely decrease opposition to presidential nominees, one that would apply not just for Obama, but for future presidents as well. And while the issue of changing senate rules has been opposed by members of both political parties, some key Democratic senators are changing their minds.
Republicans putting up the block
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat who has served California in the Senate since 1992, initially opposed any alteration to the process. Yet after this week’s Republican-led block against Obama’s U.S. District Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit nominee, Feinstein is taking a second look at the issue.
“I don’t know what the count is, but he (Reid) called me, and I said, ‘yes I changed my mind,’ I will support it,” Feinstein told NBC News, in response to whether she felt Reid had enough votes to push it through.
Meanwhile, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is actively opposing the potential change, claiming the system was set up to offer checks and balances — and that’s exactly what he claims Republicans are doing.
“If advise and consent means anything at all, then occasionally there’s going to be a situation where consent is not given,” McConnell said, according to Politico. “Majorities of both sides over the years have resisted the temptation to break the rules to change the rules.”
McConnell also claimed Democrats were attempting to hoist the issue into the spotlight to divert America’s attention away from the Affordable Care Act. He said Democrats and the president have also focused on filling spots on the D.C. Circuit, while ignoring other vacancies that are causing gridlock in the court system. However, the D.C. Circuit does have three vacancies.
Still, Democrats note that President George W. Bush and Republicans focused on the D.C. Circuit, too — and when it comes to power in the D.C. Circuit, Republicans are winning.
American Enterprise Institute Congressional Expert Norm Ornstein told Media Matters the divide between shifting the nominee rules would likely be proposed by the Republicans if they were experiencing this sort of denial.
“Republicans will do the same thing when they take the White House and Senate,” Ornstein told the media watchdog outlet. “Can anyone doubt that McConnell would blow up the filibuster rule in a nanosecond if he had the ability to fill all courts with radical conservatives…for decades to come?”
The most recent Republican-led objection to an Obama nominee came on Monday, when Judge Robert L. Wilkins was denied a spot on the U.S. District Court of Appeals D.C. Circuit.
Wilkins’s nomination was voted down by a rollcall vote of 53-38, falling short of the 60 votes needed for approval.
While Republicans claim they’re attempting to keep activist judges out of the courts, Obama and fellow Democrats have highlighted Wilkins’ experience, claiming the Republicans are obstructing justice in attempts to fill the courts with those favoring their causes.
In October, Republicans blocked Patricia Millett from filling a D.C. Circuit vacancy. Two weeks later, they did the same for nominee Nina Pillard.
What they’re really fighting over
In five years, only one of Obama’s nominees (Judge Sri Srinivasan) has been approved to the court. And while the court currently is split with four judges appointed from each side, five of the six senior judges who also preside over cases are Republican picks, giving the party a clear advantage when it comes to critical cases.
One of those potential cases is the Obama’s plan to cut carbon emissions from power plants, an announcement he made in June. During that speech, the president called for 40 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. Republicans opposed the measure, as it places stricter EPA control on a key energy industry.
It’s that very issue that’s likely to appear before the D.C. Circuit, which is why environmental organizations have kept an eye on the nomination process. The Sierra Club is among those that look at the Republican blocking measure as an effort to thwart presidential power, claiming they’re attempting to do the same thing they claim the president is doing: stacking the court in their favor.
“Who do these obstructionists think they are kidding? The gridlock they’ve created has nothing to do with the qualifications of the nominees and everything to do with politics and pushing the agenda of their big polluter allies. They’ll do anything it takes to skew the court that is often the last word on clean air and climate action,” the Sierra Club said in a statement.
The Sierra club also went so far as to inadvertently support Reid’s call for reform, pointing out the most recent cases Republicans blocked.
“Big polluters and their political allies shouldn’t be allowed to abuse the rules and put their fingers on the scales of justice any longer. Nina Pillard, Patricia Millett, and Robert Wilkins deserve an up-or-down vote now. If this obstruction continues, it’s time for the Senate to end the gridlock and pursue common sense rules reform that ensures our courts and our democracy function full-time — and not just when a handful of obstructionists agree,” the statement reads.
Another key issue that could be decided by the D.C. Circuit related to the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality case, considered monumental in the battle to keep total Internet control away from monopolies like Verizon, the very company taking on the FCC to increase its control over the internet.
“Verizon vs. FCC presents a very significant historical moment,” Susan Crawford, a tech policy expert and professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, told Time Magazine. “The question presented by the case is: Does the U.S. government have any role in ensuring ubiquitous, open, world-class, interconnected, reasonably priced Internet access?”
Without the government’s power to regulate an open Internet communications systems, the idea of national broadband services goes down the drain — bad news for consumers, yet good news for titans like Verizon. Traditionally, Republicans stand on the side of companies like Verizon, citing small government and an open market.
These are the cases that are likely to stand before D.C. Circuit court, which explains why Republicans and Democrats are once again going head-to-head in the battle to have their own nominees at the decision table.
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