Will nuclear winter come to the Senate this fall?

October 31, 2013
Nuclear winter, with sleds (Source: Washingtonpost.com)
Nuclear winter, with sleds (Washingtonpost.com)

Republicans today filibustered two nominations: Rep. Melvin Watt (D), an 11-term House member nominated to serve as director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, and Patricia Millett, a respected appellate lawyer, to sit on the D.C. Court of Appeals.  Two GOP crossed the aisle to vote with the Democrats on cloture on the Watt nomination (Rob Portman of Ohio and Watt’s North Carolina colleague, Richard Burr), and two female GOP senators (Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine) voted with the Democrats on the Millett nomination.  Two more D.C. appellate court nominees await floor votes for seats on the D.C. appellate bench.   These filibusters raise the inevitable question:  Will Democrats fight fire with fire by attempting to “go nuclear,” eliminating the ability of senators to filibuster presidential appointments to the executive and judicial branches?

Who knows?  I don’t. But there are a number of considerations that could shape Democrats’ response to the filibusters and possibly affect wavering GOP senators’ continued willingness to block confirmation votes on these and the coming D.C. appellate nominees.

First, Democrats are surely asking themselves the question: Do we want an “issue” or a confirmed nominee?  Are we willing to pay the attendant costs that going nuclear could bring or do we prefer to keep these nominees “alive” — giving Republicans the chance to repeatedly block votes on these nominees in the months ahead? The prospects of enabling GOP filibusters of an African American member of Congress (with years of experience on the House Financial Services Committee) and a female appellate lawyer (endorsed by conservative and liberal legal elites) might just be a dream come true for the Democratic party.  Granted, such a move might come at a high cost for Democrats’ policy interests by keeping vacant three seats on the D.C. Court of Appeals.

That court is now perfectly balanced between Democratic and Republican appointees, albeit with GOP-appointed senior judges tilting the court to the conservative side.  But the cost of keeping the nominees alive as an “issue” seems far lower in the case of the FHFA: Since its creation in the wake of the financial crisis, the FHFA has been led by Bush appointees, including the current acting director.  After his first nominee was blocked in 2011, President Obama has not shown much interest in putting a confirmed Democrat at the helm.   Democrats might be content to keep these nominations alive, allowing Democrats to paint Republicans as hostile to women and minorities.

Second, I wonder whether 51 Democratic senators will be willing to go nuclear over judicial nominees.  My impression this past summer during the Senate’s brush with going nuclear is that Reid succeeded in uniting the Democrats by limiting the nuclear gambit to executive branch nominees.  “This must be a new normal,” Reid argued once Republicans acquiesced to a vote on Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  “Qualified executive nominees must not be blocked on procedural supermajority votes.” Given Democrats willingness to filibuster several of Bush’s judicial nominees and given the policy consequences of lifetime tenure of federal judges, going nuclear on judicial nominations might be a bridge too far for a consequential number of Democratic senators.  Do they want to empower future Republican majorities to instill conservatives on the bench, who in the past Democrats had the ability to block? The coupling of Millett’s and Watt’s nominees this fall also complicates the matter.  Would Democrats really go nuclear over Watt but not Millett? That seems unlikely, suggesting that a new nuclear gambit would have to apply to all (executive and judicial) or neither.

Third, Republican rationale for opposing Obama’s appellate court nominees might affect Democrats’ willingness to go nuclear. Republicans argue that the court’s workload does not justify filling the three vacant judgeships.  (Interestingly, Chief Justice John Roberts disagrees.) In some ways, this rationale is akin to GOP opposition to confirming Cordray: GOP disliked the structure (and for some, the mission) of the agency, rather than the nominee.  By opposing appellate court nominees on the grounds that the bench doesn’t need more judges (and not on the basis of the nominees’ qualifications) has the GOP opened themselves to charges of overreach again?  Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina admitted after the Cordray fight that “we were wrong.”  If Democrats can paint the two episodes alike, that might up their appetite for going nuclear.

Autumn promises to be hot, with a chance of nuclear winter around the bend.

Sarah Binder is a professor of political science at George Washington University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She has authored or co-authored four books on legislative politics, and she has a mild obsession with congressional rules, the history of Congress, and the Fed.
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Joshua Tucker | October 31, 2013