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Harry Reid eyeing July for the `nuclear option’

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is increasingly focused on the month of July as the time to exercise the so-called “nuclear option” and revisit filibuster reform, and he has privately told top advisers that he’s all but certain to take action if the Senate GOP blocks three upcoming key nominations, a senior Senate Democratic aide familiar with his thinking tells me.

Reid has privately consulted with President Obama on the need to revisit filibuster reform, and the President has told the Majority Leader that he will support the exercising of the nuclear option if Reid opts for it, the aide says, adding that senior Democrats expect the President to publicly push for it as well. “If Senator Reid decides to do something on nominations, the president has said he’ll be there to support him,” the aide says.

Reid is eyeing a change to the rules that would do away with the 60-vote threshold on all judicial and executive branch nominations, the aide says, on the theory that this is a good way to immediately break an important logjam in Washington — without changing the rules when it comes to legislation.

“This would take away the right to filibuster on nominations,” the aide says. “All executive branch and judicial nominations would be subject to majority votes. He would not do it on legislative items.”

The aide — who cautioned that this isn’t a fait accompli by any means — shared a number of other insights on Reid’s thinking about the need to revisit Senate rules.

First, Reid views three upcoming nominees as a key test for whether he will exercise the nuclear option: Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; Thomas Perez as secretary of labor; and Gina McCarthy to head the Environmental Protection Agency.

If Republicans block those three nominees, the aide tells me, “then our position will be very easy.”

Second, immigration reform is looming as a wild card in Reid’s internal thinking about whether to revisit the filibuster. The aide says senior Democratic Senators have privately expressed worry to the Majority Leader that revisiting the rules could imperil the immigration push, and have asked him to delay it until after immigration reform is done (or is killed).

This is why July has emerged as the rough target date, the aide says. “The fear is that if he does this before immigration reform is done, then all of the Republicans are going to walk,” the aide tells me.

Reid recently told a group of major donors that he believes he made a mistake in agreeing to watered down filibuster reform earlier this year, the aide says. But Reid doesn’t regret this, because he still believes he did not have the votes to pass more ambitious reform via a simple majority vote, due to continued reluctance among “old bull” type Democrats in the Senate to exercise the nuclear option.

However, Reid has held conversations with some of the veteran Democratic Senators and has sensed a thawing in their opposition to the nuke option, the aide says, because patience with GOP obstruction of nominees has worn thin. “They realize there is a significant problem,” the aide says.

It is certainly possible that Reid could ultimately decide not to revisit reform; Republicans may opt to allow select nominees through in order to preempt action from Reid. The key dynamic is that Democrats — Reid included — don’t really want to exercise the nuclear option, and would far prefer it if Republicans stand down, even to some degree, in their filibustering of nominations. Republicans will continue to test just how much they can get away with. But there is plainly a line that they can cross that will trigger action on Reid’s part.