Harkin yes, Grassley no as Senate curtails filibusters on nominees (updated)

After years of trying, Senator Tom Harkin finally got a majority of his colleagues on board with Senate rules reform. Today 52 members of the Democratic caucus voted to curtail the minority’s ability to filibuster presidential nominees. The same 52 senators then rejected Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s objection to the ruling from the chair. Just like that, Reid invoked the so-called "nuclear option," which Republicans used to call the "constitutional option" when they flirted with the same rule change in 2006. From now on, only a simple majority of 51 votes will be needed to end debate on a judicial or executive branch nomination—not the 60 votes needed for cloture before today.

A series of Republican filibusters against nominees to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals finally pushed Reid to action. Immediately following the rules change, the Senate passed by 55 votes to 43 a cloture motion on the nomination of Patricia Millett, whom Republicans filibustered last month.

Senator Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, vehemently objected to the rules change as a “blatant power grab,” while Harkin called for more limits to filibusters that block legislation. Comments from both senators are after the jump. President Barack Obama welcomed the rules change, saying, “I realize neither party has been blameless for these tactics … But today’s pattern of obstruction just isn’t normal.” But McConnell warned Democrats, “You’ll regret this, and you may regret this a lot sooner than you think.”

UPDATE: Added more comments from both Harkin and Grassley below. Grassley warned that when his party is in the majority, they will likely remove the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees as well. For the record, Senate Democrats have never filibustered a Republican president’s Supreme Court nominee.

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Harkin and Grassley on the latest Senate confirmations and filibuster deal

Democrats in the U.S. Senate came closer than ever this week to stopping Republicans from forcing a supermajority vote on executive branch nominees. An informal deal deterred Democrats from changing Senate rules by simple majority vote and cleared the path for a handful of President Barack Obama’s nominees to go forward. However, more struggles over confirmations seem likely in the future.

Iowa’s Senators Tom Harkin and Chuck Grassley could hardly be further apart on the process by which the Senate gives its “advice and consent.”  

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Grassley, Senate Republicans block Paycheck Fairness Act

A majority of Iowa women voters backed Senator Chuck Grassley on November 2. Here’s how he repaid them two weeks later:

Senate Democrats didn’t muster enough votes today to overcome a Republican-led filibuster of the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill that would have lifted the cap on damages in pay- discrimination lawsuits and restricted how employers can fight such complaints. The legislation would also have banned employers from penalizing workers who share salary information to find pay discrepancies.

Democrats pushed the measure, which would have strengthened remedies under the Equal Pay Act of 1963 for women, early in the Obama administration as part of a pro-labor agenda. It passed the House of Representatives in January 2009, along with the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. […]

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and other business groups lobbied Republican senators to block the companion piece of legislation.

Yes, Grassley and every other Republican present (plus “Democrat” Ben Nelson of Nebraska) voted to block debate on the Paycheck Fairness Act. If you’re a working woman getting paid less than your male colleagues, Grassley wants to limit your ability to find evidence of discrimination as well as your compensation if you file a claim against your employer.

Grassley’s lack of concern for underpaid women is no surprise. He also voted against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act several times.

Add the Paycheck Fairness Act filibuster to the list of reasons Democrats should take up Tom Harkin’s call for Senate reform. Yet again, 41 senators overruled 58 colleagues who supported moving a bill forward. Senators will be able to change the chamber’s procedural rules in January, when the newly elected Congress begins work. Democrats would be idiots not to do so.

Speaking of corporate influence over American politics, Bloomberg News reported yesterday that America’s Health Insurance Plans, a lobbying group representing health insurers, gave the U.S. Chamber of Commerce $86.2 million in 2009.

The spending on the Chamber exceeded the insurer group’s entire budget from a year earlier and accounted for 40 percent of the Chamber’s $214.6 million in 2009 expenditures. […]

The $86.2 million paid for advertisements, polling and grass roots events to drum up opposition to the [health care reform] bill, said Tom Collamore, a Chamber of Commerce spokesman. The Chamber said in a statement it used the funds to “advance a market-based health-care system and advocate for fundamental reform that would improve access to quality care while lowering costs.”

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Democratic leaders should be listening to Tom Harkin

Senator Tom Harkin and Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire introduced a resolution yesterday that would change the Senate’s rules on filibusters:

the first vote on a cloture motion – which ends a filibuster – would require 60 votes to proceed, the next would be two days later and require 57. This process would repeat itself until the number fell to 51, or a simple majority.

The idea is to restore the filibuster to its original use (delaying passage of a bill) as opposed to its current use by Republicans (to impose a super-majority requirement for every Senate action). The authors of the Constitution never intended to make the Senate unable to act without the consent of 60 percent of its members. But Republicans used the filibuster more times in 2009 than it was used during the entire period from 1949 to 1970.

However, an unofficial whip count shows Democrats very far from having enough votes to change the filibuster rules. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in effect took the issue off the table yesterday.

Also yesterday, Harkin advised President Obama to use recess appointments for dozens of nominees whom Republicans have been holding up. Unfortunately, the White House announced that the president will not use his recess appointment powers for now, because the Senate confirmed 27 out of more than 60 nominees Republicans are holding up. (The list of those 27 nominees is here.) Although Obama’s statement reserves the right to make recess appointments in the future, he should not have taken that off the table as long as Senate Republicans continue to hold dozens of nominees in limbo.

One of the most controversial nominees is Craig Becker. A February 9 filibuster blocked his appointment to the National Labor Relations Board, because Becker is supposedly too pro-labor. President George W. Bush used recess appointments to name seven of his nine appointees to the NLRB. Of course, they were all anti-labor. It’s past time to bring balance to that board.

UPDATE: Senator Dick Durbin supports Harkin’s filibuster reform efforts. A “senior leadership aide” told Greg Sargent that Durbin is “in talks with a number of other Democratic senators regarding possible changes to Senate rules.”

SECOND UPDATE: A new CBS/New York Times poll found 50 percent of respondents said the filibuster should not remain in place, while 44 percent said they should. I think with more education of the public about how the filibuster obstructs progress, support for changing the rules would grow.

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Shelby releases some holds, still blocking military nominees

Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama released holds on most of the Obama administration nominees he has been blocking, the Washington Post reports, citing a statement from Shelby’s office:

“The purpose of placing numerous holds was to get the White House’s attention on two issues that are critical to our national security – the Air Force’s aerial refueling tanker acquisition and the FBI’s Terrorist Device Analytical Center (TEDAC). With that accomplished, Sen. Shelby has decided to release his holds on all but a few nominees directly related to the Air Force tanker acquisition until the new Request for Proposal is issued. The Air Force tanker acquisition is not an ‘earmark’ as has been reported; it is a competition to replace the Air Force’s aging aerial refueling tanker fleet. Sen. Shelby is not seeking to determine the outcome of the competition; he is seeking to ensure an open, fair and transparent competition that delivers the best equipment to our men and women in uniform.”

I wonder whether any of Shelby’s GOP colleagues leaned on him to take this step. They may have been worried about mainstream media coverage of Shelby’s grotesque hostage-taking exercise, or they may not want to push things too far in case Senate Democrats change the rules on putting “holds” on nominees.

Shelby’s power play is not over yet, because he is still vowing to block nominees “directly related to the Air Force tanker acquisition.” Emptywheel found out which nominees are covered by Shelby’s hold:

    * Terry Yonkers, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Installations, Environment, and Logistics (Nominated August 4, 2009)

    * Frank Kendall, Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (PDUSD) for Acquisition and Technology (Nominated August 6, 2009)

    * Erin Conaton, Under Secretary of the Air Force (Nominated November 10, 2009)

Democrats should blast Republicans for indulging Shelby while key Air Force positions remain vacant during wartime. I would encourage Roxanne Conlin’s campaign not to drop its “fight the hold” effort until Republicans allow the Senate to vote on all of these nominees.

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