June 5, 2013
Victoria Nuland nominated
Former U.S. ambassador to NATO Victoria Nuland visits Skopje, Macedonia, in this April 9, 2008 file photo. (Reuters/Ognen Teofilovski/Files)

Here’s the thing: Republicans don’t really want to defeat the nomination of Victoria Nuland, whom Barack Obama has nominated for a State Department promotion. Nuland, you may remember, is the non-partisan official at State who represented the department’s interests while editing the post-Benghazi talking points that have Republicans all worked up for no reason.

In fact, the Nuland nomination is a great example of why the 60 vote supermajority requirement — something that was rare for executive branch nominations until it became mandatory in January 2009 — is basically a lousy deal…for the minority party.

Think about what Republicans actually want here. First, they want an excuse to register, once again, their outrage with Barack Obama. (“Benghazi! Benghazi!”) That’s actually easier to do if they lose a confirmation vote. After all, then there are no further consequences; indeed, if all that’s scheduled was a simple-majority vote then they’re all free to vote against her, but if there’s a 60-vote threshold, then six unfortunate Republicans are going to be pressured to bite the bullet and vote to confirm.

That’s not just true for Nuland. It’s almost certainly true for Gina McCarthy at EPA, and for Thomas Perez at Labor. After all, if they’re defeated, then someone else will get the job and carry out exactly the same policies. It’s just symbolic opposition; it shouldn’t bother Republicans if it has only symbolic effects.

The other thing they want, however, is to use the nomination to gain enough leverage to force the administration to disclose more Benghazi information. Granted, in this particular case, that’s sort of silly, but in many cases it’s totally reasonable for any Senate minority, and for any single senator, to use nominations for leverage. What’s needed for that to work, however, is something like the current filibuster/cloture/hold system, in which a threat from a single senator is respected.

The danger for Republicans, then, is that majority-imposed reform will take that leverage away by getting rid of minority party and single senator influence entirely by essentially making the Senate a lot more like the House. The obvious solution to all of this is to keep the same machinery in place for filibusters, clotures, holds, etc. — but to reduce the requirement for cloture on executive branch nominations to a simple majority, same as for confirmation.

That still allows senators, including minority-party senators, to use the threat of a hold (backed up by the threat of prolonging debate on the Senate floor) for leverage. But it also keeps the Senate functional, avoiding the kind of stalemates that would produce strict majority-party rule.

Judges, it should be noted, are a different case; Republicans really do want to defeat those judicial nominees who they believe will be extreme liberals on the bench so that they can force Obama to name moderates (or perhaps older liberals who won’t stay in the job as long). But on executive branch nominees, moving to simple-majority cloture really would be best for both sides, and best for the Senate.