Monday morning, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid appeared at the Center for American Progress to lay out his rationale for deploying the "nuclear option," or changing the Senate rules to allow executive branch nominees to be approved with 51 votes, instead of 60. Votes are scheduled for Tuesday on seven nominations, and action to reform the filibuster could be taken as soon as Monday night. The speech follows.
Transcript - SEN. HARRY REID, D-NEV., SENATE MAJORITY LEADER, DELIVERS REMARKS AT THE CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS ACTION FUND
JULY 15, 2013
SPEAKERS: SEN. HARRY REID, D-NEV., SENATE MAJORITY LEADER
NEERA TANDEN, PRESIDENT, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS
[*] REID: Thank you all very much for being here this morning. I know it's always appropriate to start your presentation by saying something funny, and I am about the most un-funny person you've ever known. But I thought I would tell you something that happened to my family not long ago.
As you know, I have five children. My youngest boy has five little -- I'm sorry -- four little girls, and they're beautiful children. He was a gifted athlete. He was our entertainment until he was 22 years old; played on three national championship teams at the University of Virginia. And he was so looking forward to coaching his boys so they'd be just like him, but he's got four girls.
So he's coaching them. They'll all very athletic. But his lovely wife and he decided it would be a good thing if their kids, those four little girls, had some responsibilities around the house. And so they sat down with all four of them and said, "OK, we're going to give you this much money every week, but you're going to have to do" -- and they outlined what they had to do: help with the dishes, pick up the toys, help with the bed, make up the beds; just do a list of things that kids are always required to do.
And it went just fine for three or four months. But Ella (ph), the oldest, for a while just wouldn't do anything. So, her mom talked to my son and, she said, "When you get home, you're going to have to sit down and have a little talk with her. She won't do anything. It's been that way for weeks." So my son sat down, just the two of them alone, and started what he thought would be this long conversation with little Ella (ph).
And he said, "Your sisters are doing everything they're asked to do. You are basically not carrying your load. Why? What's the matter?" She said, "Dad, I don't need the money."
Well, at least a few laughs anyway.
Well, I appreciate very much for having the opportunity to visit with each of you on something I've worked on for some time now.
John, I appreciate very much the work of having this organization for 10 years.
Neera, you're doing a great job filling in for John.
Congress is extremely unpopular for a couple of main reason. Any poll you look at indicates that they're unpopular for two reasons: one, gridlock, gridlock, gridlock; two, not getting things done. And that's really true. We -- when I came to Congress, actually first time I ran for the Senate, we were at above 45 percent, approaching 50 percent (inaudible) Congress. Not that way anymore. Last Gallup number had us at 10 percent and not going up, going down.
So why is that? Of course, we all know we need to pass legislation that does good things for our country, especially the middle class.
Flip on C-SPAN, as I know some of you do, and what do you see there the vast majority of the time? Nothing. Blank screen. Quorum calls.
So we're wasting time. Hour after hour, day after day.
Let me give you a picture of where we're coming from -- me and my caucus -- Lyndon Johnson was majority leader for six years. During that period of time, he had to overcome one filibuster. I've been leader about the same time as he has. I don't know the exact number, but it's around 420 filibusters.
So have things changed?
Yes, they sure have changed.
Now, there are -- everyone knows that under the Constitution, we have a responsibility to give advice and consent to the president on his nominations, but all we have from the Republicans is not advice and consent, we have obstruct and delay. And that's really the truth.
Now, remember my conservative friends always talk about the Constitution. So let's use that as a frame for my presentation to you here today. The Constitution is very, very specific as to what requires a super majority: Vetoes, impeachments, treaties. And that same paragraph where the founding fathers talked about super majority they mentioned presidential nominations, majority -- majority.
The founding fathers wanted an up or down vote and that's basically what we've been crying for now for years. And I believe this, whether it is one of the new Bush's to be president, maybe Jeb, or maybe a new Clinton, maybe Hillary, or maybe even the daughter, but whoever -- whoever is president, they should have the ability to pick their team. There's -- I feel strongly about that.
Many here follow the Washington Nationals. It is great that we have a team here. I have had a number of opportunities to visit with Davey Johnson, he's one of the great baseball heroes of all time, played on national championship teams, second baseman to the Baltimore Orioles, tenet (ph), won a World Series. He is now here, and he has been selected as manager of the year many times. Let us assume that, this year, Davey Johnson has his team together, and he gets a call from major-league baseball. They say, "Davey I know if you have worked hard to put this team together. I am glad to see that Zimmerman is back, he's had the surgery, we hope he can throw better. We know that he has been a golden-glover, and you can have him, but not until sometime -- the first part of June. And that contract he signed recently, for La Roche, you get him for a year, first base, you can have him, but it's gonna be after the all- star break."
How would that be for his team?
Well, multiply that a hundred times, and you find out what is going on here in Washington.
We have a situation where Republicans have created gridlock -- gridlock, gridlock.
And it has consequences. It's not only bad for President Obama, it's bad for the country.
The status quo won't work. Now, during the time we've been a country -- during the time we've been a country, until Barack Obama became president, 20 (inaudible) nominees were filibustered. During the four years that President Obama has been president, he's already had -- I'm sorry -- he's already had 16 of his nominees filibustered.
Think about that.
What they have done is just really unbelievable. And my Republican colleague, Senator McConnell, on "Meet the Press" yesterday, they asked him the logical question. They said, "What are you gonna do with Napolitano's replacement?"
And rather than say, "We'll move forward on that; we have some questions, but we'll move forward on it," he refused to tell David Gregory whether or not they would -- he would allow an up-or-down vote.
Think about that.
What they have done is really untoward. The American people need to feel that we as a Senate are responsive to their challenges. They've carried this to the extreme.
I don't do committee work anymore, but I've sat for hours during committees. And during those committee hearings for a nominee, what we do is you ask questions. Sometimes it goes for a day or two, three days sometimes. But it's been traditional after those questions have been asked, there may a -- one senator saying, "You know, could I -- could I send you a couple questions in writing?"
"And you'll get the answers back as soon as you can?"
"Yes." Well, that has been carried to the extreme. Perez wants to be secretary of labor. Worked his way through school as a garbageman, hauling garbage. They submitted to him 300 questions in writing. He had to respond back in writing.
But the champion of this, Gina McCarthy. Long hearing on this. She had to respond to 1,100 questions. 1,100 questions.
Now, my friend, the Republican leader had others come to the floor and say, "Well, yeah, but everything's going great. We approved this person, 97 to nothing. One person, 98 to nothing. Another 100 to nothing."
But that's the whole point. They don't have anything -- there's nothing wrong with these people. There's nothing wrong with their qualifications.
They simply want to stall what goes on.
Those people that they voted 97 to nothing, some of them we waited months. And our lead folks -- that we talked -- talked about today, they've been waiting for more than two years.
I have the 15 that are on the calendar today, their average waiting time has been nine months.
Do they have an objection against Richard Cordray, his qualifications?
Of course not. Cordray was a clerk for Judge Bork. Cordray was a clerk for Justice Kennedy. He was attorney general for the state of Ohio. There's nothing wrong with his qualifications. They just don't like his job. They don't like someone who's job, based on legislation that we passed and is signed into law, who takes a look for the consumer against the greed that happens on occasion in Wall Street.
Do they have anything personally against the two NLRB nominees?
No. One of them was Senator Kennedy's counsel. The other was the attorney for the operating engineers. These are good people. They don't challenge their qualifications. They -- they challenge their jobs. NLRB has been in existence since the Great Depression. It works. It protects workers, not union workers, workers.
Isn't it interesting, the focal point has been the last few months on all these people, on the secretary of labor and two NLRB posts. Do you think there's something in that message to the American people? We're going to do everything we can to make sure business is OK. But we're not going to make sure that everything is OK with American workers.
Now there have been hues and cries at what I and my caucus are trying to do is going to really hurt the Senate. In the last 18 years -- I'm sorry. The last 16 -- the last 36 years, we've changed the rules by a simple majority 18 times. I've done it. We always do it, simple majority when things don't work.
And if you look at what those changes were, people were just trying to be factitious and create problems. Like (ph) we did this just a little over a year ago. What had happened is after cloture had been invoked -- invoked on one of those rare occasions to stop filibuster, some of the Republican senators came up with this big, great idea (inaudible). And they would file motions set aside the rules. And while it took a two-thirds majority, they knew none of them would pass. But they wanted my folks to have to vote on amendments that had nothing to do with the bill that cloture had been invoked on it.
Now I put up with this for a while. They had two or three of them. Finally -- I don't remember the exact number -- they had fifteen or so (inaudible). It takes huge amounts of time and was a waste of Senate's time. So we changed the rules. We said, "You can't do that anymore." That was done by a simple majority.
And that's all we're doing here. We're -- this does not affect life-time appointments. It doesn't affect substantive legislation. It allows the president to have his team, for this president and those in the future. And that's the way it should be.
My friend, Senator McConnell -- and this is not -- this is not McConnell (inaudible) Reid. This is my caucus is concerned about where this country is headed. But Mitch has said -- said -- I'm not making this up -- he is the proud guardian of good law (ph). Those were his words. So I took action last week, the first Republicans to either allow these people to go through that is stop the filibuster or where gonna have to change the rule.
There is -- there isn't, as I've indicated, a single objection to the qualifications for any one of these people. And we need to move forward. We need to stop blocking this president and the future presidents from having a qualified team that he thinks is what he needs.
This is in the Constitution. This isn't about Democrats versus Republicans. It's about making Washington work, regardless of who's in the White House. I also think that it's clear that we should all understand that the Senate is a unique institution. It was created that way by the founding fathers.
It's a -- traditions are important. But also, it's an evolving institution. It's always been that way. That's why we -- that's why we changed the rules 18 times over the last there decades.
Among those traditions is protections for the minority, and that's the way it should be. The power of an extreme minority now threatens the very integrity of this institution. As we know, Frank Lautenberg passed away very recently. He was a fine man -- he loved the Senate. (inaudible), after her 1,100 questions were answered, the Republicans refused to have a single Republican attend. So the only way to overcome that is all Democratic senators of the committee had to be there.
Frank Lautenberg was dying -- I called Bonnie and I said, "We have to have him here." And he, literally on his death bed, came down here -- unhooked the stuff that was keeping him alive -- came down here from New Jersey and walked in to make a caucus out -- everybody was there for the Democrats on the EPW Committee.
We shouldn't be doing stuff like that. That isn't what it's all about. You can't reward bad behavior over and over and over again. For the first time in the history of the country they've filibustered a secretary of defense. This wild-eyed liberal from Nebraska, a war hero -- literally a war hero who was commended for his heroism, who among other things on the battlefield saved his brother's life. I went to his office when he was here as a Senator. He has a picture there of he and his brother on an armored personnel carrier in Vietnam -- and not only that, one of the senators questioned his loyalty to our country in a public hearing that day.
John Brennan, filibustered director of the CIA.
So my efforts are directed to save the Senate from becoming obsolete, to remain relevant and effective as an institution, and to do that, the set must evolve to meet the challenges of modern day America.
This is really a moment in history where circumstances dictate the need for change. Minor change, no big deal. Remember, all we want to do is what the Constitution says we should do. Filibusters are not part of the Constitution, that is something that senators developed on their own to get legislation to pass. Now it is being used not only to get legislation from stop passing, but to stop nominees. It's in a totally different place than where it should be.
This is a moment in history where circumstances dictate the need for change. It is time for a course correction, that compels the two parties to work with each other instead of against each other. The gravity of the challenges facing our country demands that we do what is necessary to save this storied institution, the United States Senate.
I love the Senate, but right now, the Senate is broken and needs to be fixed.
I have a vision of the Senate that works again, a Senate that's once again a responsive and effective advocate for middle-class families. It really troubles me when my Republican colleagues stand and say, "But we passed the farm bill, we passed an immigration bill." Keep going. Keep going. Not much help (ph). Those are not things we should be saying, "Oh, we were able to do that."
I mean, I am really proud of eight Democrats and Republicans who worked together to help us find a pathway to do immigration. But that's what we used to do all the time. That's what we do. Compromise is what we're all about. Legislation is the art of compromise. That's what it's all about.
So, I want the Senate to work again. And with your support, I'm prepared to take whatever action is necessary to make that happen.
Thank you very much.
(Neera) TANDEN (President of the Center for American Progress): So, I'm just going to ask a few questions, and then we'll turn it over to the audience.
So, you referenced, Senator Reid, the issue -- the fact that what's tying a lot of these blocked nominees together from the Consumer Financial Protection Board, to the National Labor Relations Board, to the Environmental Protection Agency, Labor -- is that these are agencies that protect consumers and they face great opposition.
There's also the issue which is -- which is sort of new with the Consumer Financial Protection Board, which is that, you know, over 40 senators basically said they would not confirm (inaudible -- they were opposed to basically any confirmation.
So do you think in some sense what we're facing is a new issue in which the Senate minority is using the power of the filibuster to basically nullify the effect of laws themselves? Because whether it's National Labor Relations Board, Consumer Financial Protection Board, it's hard to actually get them to operate properly when they don't have nominees or they don't have -- they don't have commissioners or directors?
REID: There are a lot of things that have happened since I've been here that have been pushed forward by Republican presidents, Republican Congresses, that I didn't like. But it is -- we -- we have not the ability -- we shouldn't have, at least -- just because we don't like a law, we don't fill the positions to see if it will work.
The -- Dodd-Frank -- Republicans, not a one of them voted for it -- hated the bill. But we did it because Wall Street had ruined temporarily -- thank goodness we're making our way back, but not as much as I'd like -- (inaudible) Las Vegas, Nevada. They don't like (inaudible). Elizabeth Warren came up with the idea that we need someone to protect the consumer. That's not an outrageous idea, but they don't like it, because the consumer, I believe, needs protection against Wall Street, and that's what this would do. And the don't like it and they've done (inaudible) to stop it.
Yeah, I got a letter from -- can't remember -- 44 I think senators, Republican senators, and it's the same (inaudible). You know, we have the same issue with health care, with many other -- and, you know, the -- the Cordray issue is really we solved the big problem, because it's so important we protect the consumer. It is -- we don't have to appropriate the money for that. That also drives them crazy.
That happens automatically (inaudible) the Federal Reserve.
TANDEN: And so, do you -- there's obviously a lot of progressive groups have been pushing for filibuster reform a long time and (inaudible). Why focus on nominees? And why now, essentially?
REID: Because that's now where the big plug is. I mean, you can look at many different pieces of legislation and look at how the 60- vote threshold, or the 60 is -- can be changed to a lower number. That's something we can deal with later.
But right now, the 60 protects progressive groups and conservative groups. Look at the gun thing, as an example. The gun legislation I so believe in, for background checks to stop people who have serious mental problems or criminals from buying a gun, I believe in that very strongly.
But I didn't believe in the fact that because they have some -- I want to be as nice as I can about this -- some crazy, absurd rule in Idaho and Utah that basically you can carry a gun anyplace you want, I don't think that would be good, to have somebody fly into Las Vegas armed to the hilt, because of some law that they have in Idaho or fly into St. Louis -- I mean. So (inaudible).
Women who are very concerned about protecting their rights with just a simply majority.
So, you know, I'm not -- I'm not anxious to change that.
On judges, I'm comfortable with our doing what we're doing. We have to see what happens, but I'm very comfortable with where we are now, and I'm not -- not trying to ask for this other places.
TANDEN: All right, so let's -- I mean we have a few minutes for questions. I think we'll start with the press.
And if you could identify yourself and your organization, that would be great.
QUESTION: Chuck Babinger (ph), with AP.
Senator Reid, as you know, Republicans have raised the specter of possibly using a simple majority vote when they have a majority, which, as you know, could come fairly soon, to open up Yucca Mountain for nuclear waste.
Is that something that you're willing to accept or?
REID: How -- how silly, but I'll answer it. I mean, how silly. They are not about to have a 50-vote majority, if they're in power or anybody else is in power. That is just a -- that bothered me about as much as the color of your tie today.
Which doesn't bother me at all, OK?
So Yucca Mountain's not...
QUESTION: You're saying that even if they had a majority, that they could not come up with 51 votes for that issue.
REID: But that's not the issue. If they get in -- if they want to change rule by a simple majority, more power to them. I think they would be -- they would rue the day they did it. They don't -- they're not gonna do that.
We're not gonna do that. It's all, you know, the sky is falling. As -- they asked Barbara Mikulski, who is as quick-witted as anybody I've ever known. They asked her last week, they said, "This is a slippery slope."
And she said, "That's why they call them slopes."
QUESTION: Hi, Senator Reid, Jeff Bellamy (ph), with ABC News.
In 2005, you said that changing these rules would be a black chapter in the history of the country. It would ruin our country and that you should not be able to willy-nilly change the rules of the Senate.
Isn't this being a little hypocritical about changing the rules now?
REID: No, what it is is you don't understand the right question. I -- I wasn't talking about changing the rules for nominees. I was talking about changing the rules for judges. OK?
It's a new era. I mean, we have now, since then, as I've indicated 400 -- approximately 420 times that we've been filibustered.
We have a situation where we have people who have been waiting, existing (ph) on a calendar for nine months. The two nominees for the NLRB have been waiting for two years. Cordray has been waiting for two years. So -- so it's a totally different world we live in. And I don't -- I -- of course, I wasn't the leader at that time. But, anyway, that's -- that's what I said. Here's how I feel now. Different situations.
QUESTION: Senator Reid, Chris Reed (ph), National Journal.
I wanted to ask, are you concerned at all if, by putting these in place, that when the next president comes, that you'll be able to create a situation where there's no need for any kind of bipartisan Cabinets where the FEC could be stacked with Republicans who are, you know, who are pro-campaign finance reform if you're a Democrat, or Democrats who are anti-campaign find this reform if you're a Republican, basically making it difficult for any of the government to function?
REID: Why don't you look at what's going on today, rather than have some hypothetical in the future? The problem today is the president of the United States cannot get the people to work for him that he wants. That's what we should focus on. I mean, when -- when it's gone so far that you -- for the first time in history, the country -- you filibuster a secretary of defense, you -- instead of submitting as used to happen six or seven questions, you now do 1100. Jack Lew is -- he's secretary of treasury. We're -- we had to file cloture on him so he could be part of the international monetary fund.
Let's talk about the problems today, not some hypothetical in the future. And if people really have concern about that, let them go change the Constitution. That's what the Constitution says, that for a presidential nominee, it should be a simple majority. It's worked for a long, long time. And that's why, during the time from George Washington to Barack Obama, you only had 20 filibusters of presidential nominations.
TANDEN: Do you mind if I (inaudible)?
We'll go, over there.
QUESTION: Hi, Senator. Jonathon Weisman (ph) from the New York Times.
You're having this meeting tonight in the old Senate chamber. But it sounds like you've made your decision. So what is this meeting tonight about? And are you open to any kind of compromises that would let some of these or all of these nominees go forward with some proviso that -- that -- that the so-called -- constitution option be taken off the table, at least for now?
REID: Simple solution. I mentioned it in my remarks. It's so easy. If the sky's falling and they think it's falling, let them stop the filibusters on the (inaudible). And we were -- up or down votes on these people and go on to the business of the day. That seems pretty simple to me.
And it's -- it's also quite fascinating here. We're having a joint caucus. I tried to do that in the past. McConnell wouldn't let us do it. The only time we've been able to do it is when I came up with the idea to have John McCain, in a closed session with our senators, talk about his experiences in Vietnam. And it was stunningly interesting. But we -- we tried to do joint caucuses.
Now, no matter what reason there is for having one, we're having one. I think it's gonna -- hope that sets a tone for the future. But I repeat, The New York Times, if they wanna -- if they wanna stop what's going on, don't filibuster. Don't filibuster Cordray. Don't filibuster Griffen, block (ph) Hochberg, Gina McCarthy, Perez. That's -- that's a good way to stop all this.
TANDEN: There's someone -- OK, yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes, Senator. Cory Bowles (ph), Wall Street Journal.
Are you open to, assuming that this rule change goes forward, to going further later in the year for -- you mentioned gun control earlier. Are you open to potentially making this change for legislation, as well?
REID: When you come here, I'm sorry you can't hear all the answers. I answered that question. I have no intent of changing the rule that leads (ph) legislation. Zero. Just like I told this man from the National Journal.
Same answer. Same question. Same Answer.
TANDEN: (OFF-MIKE) are there questions from the public over here?
QUESTION: Hello, James Bradbury, University of Colorado.
So, Senator, if this nuclear option is supposed to mitigate grid lock in the Senate, what other roles would like to see changed to make the Senate more effective?
REID: Nothing right now. But remember, the Senate is an evolving body. We've change the rules in recent years 18 times. I gave you one example. I went back and study to be other reasons.
It is the same thing as this. Somebody gets the bright idea -- I don't know if it was a Democrat or a Republican. I really don't know this. The other 17 times something just to bring the Senate to a standstill like we are now. And so the rules were changed, and I'm sure they will change in the future.
TANDEN: Other questions?
QUESTION: Senator, I think another interesting idea that has been proposed...
REID: Tell us where you're from?
QUESTION: I'm sorry, I'm Alex Holden (ph), from the University of Southern California.
REID: Hope you have a better football than team last year. That was a disaster.
That proves you cannot buy college football players.
QUESTION: You make me want to switch to the other party.
(LAUGHTER) One of the more interesting ideas I have seen proposed is to shift the burden to the minority to sustain a filibuster rather than the majority to overcome a filibuster. I am interested in your view on that proposal.
REID: Jeff Merkley and Tom Udall have suggested that, and that's something we can look at that in the future. It's harder to implement than people think. But remember we have deep traditions here in the Senate. And maybe sometime in the distant future, we can take a look at that.
Merkley and Udall have spent untold hours and hours working on this. I admire what they've done. And remember -- I want to say this, young man, to everybody here: This is not me marching down the road on this. My caucus is supportive of me, because that is where they want to go to change this rule.
TANDEN: I want to say as a UCLA Bruin, I appreciate your remarks.
We have time for two more questions.
Right there, there is a microphone coming to you.
QUESTION: Laura Fitzgerald (ph) with Bloomberg News.
McConnell has made clear that the recess appointments is what is most concerned with and you have votes to start with Cordray with the procedural vote tomorrow. Are there any circumstances that you can see to delaying that maybe to have additional talks? How iron clad is a vote tomorrow?
REID: Talks on what? Talks on what? If they have a proposal, bring it to me, but otherwise, we're gonna have a vote in the morning. They have a proposal, bring it to me. The easiest to wait to do with this is to simply get rid of these filibusters.
I mean, what -- what -- logically, why would they hold up? This is one of the most interesting things -- they created these recess appointments. We didn't. They created them. They would not allow us to have them. What is Barack Obama supposed to do? The NLRB goes out of business August 1st. It is gone. It's over with.
REID: They are using -- I've heard it. "You're doing this illegally." Well, it has only happened because of them. The president would not have recess appointed these people. Now, with these courts, what they've done, they said, "You cannot have a recess appointment," basically, period." That's it. It's gone to the Supreme Court. We don't have time to wait and see what Justice Kennedy is going to do. Maybe we should just call him.
TANDEN: One last question right here.
QUESTION: Thank you, Senator; Todd Willick (ph) with Public Radio.
Can you give us, just on Jonathan's (ph) question, a little more specificity on how this might go this week? Cordray is first. Maybe you don't get all seven; maybe Republicans let three go, or three, with an agreement for four. Is there -- is there wiggle room between seven and zero where this might be averted?
And secondly, are you supportive or not supportive of the possibility of a gang forming which would essentially circumvent you on this? That could easily happen with eight senators. And would you be supportive of that?
REID: There have been gangs forming on this issue for a while. Where we are -- my caucus supports where we are. I'm not concerned about gangs. That's gotten a little passe, frankly
QUESTION: Is -- is there wiggle room between seven and zero where you get McConnell to give you three of these nominees, or four, but not seven?
QUESTION: It's seven or nothing?
REID: Yeah. There -- no one questions -- excuse me -- their capabilities, their credentials, their integrity. They're doing it because they're trying to hold up things. It's obstruct and delay. That's what's going on around here. And we want to make a simple, simple change.
As I said, it will apply to whoever is the next president, Democrat or Republican. It will apply to Barack Obama. They should be able to have a team aboard. Now, does that mean they are going to be approved automatically? Of course not. In the past, Democrats and Republicans have worked together to stop nominees from going forward. Didn't have to filibuster.
TANDEN: I think that is unfortunately all the time we have today. And thank you so much, Senator Reid, for being here and for a great discussion this morning.
REID: Thanks, everybody.