Senate Democratic aides are currently telling reporters that a deal has been reached to allow Democrats to avoid going nuclear and eliminating the filibuster on executive nominations by a simple majority vote. The basic facts, according to one senior Senate Dem aide, are as follows:
1) John McCain went around Mitch McConnell to negotiate the final deal with Democratic leaders, as I reported was underway earlier today. McCain apparently rounded up around a half dozen Senators to support the slate of Obama’s nominations put forward by Dems. The nominations will now apparently get more than 60 votes to break the GOP filibuster.
In the first test vote, the Senate just voted for cloture on Richard Cordray’s nomination as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, with 17 Republicans voting Yes.
2) Democrats did not agree to McConnell’s demand that they agree not to change the rules later. This will make it harder for Republicans to continue to filibuster nominations for the sole purpose of rendering government agencies they don’t like dysfunctional. In other words, Dems have succeeded in drawing that line, and preserving it, as one that must not be crossed, lest Republicans face a change of the rules as a consequence.
3) Democrats agreed to replace two of the appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, but according to the Dem aide, the agreement provides that the replacements can be picked by labor, and that Republicans agree to confirm them by the end of July.
What’s more, a third NLRB slot — the one held by Richard Griffin — expires in 2014. The aide says Republicans agreed not to filibuster that one, either. “We are essentially getting three NLRB noms,” the aide emails.
There will be some disappointment out there that the filibuster wasn’t changed, and that’s understandable. But anyone who thought Harry Reid would change the rules for the sake of filibuster reform itself just wasn’t paying attention.
This has always been about forcing Republicans to drop their blockade of nominations. The preference of Dem leaders has, from the outset, plainly been to avoid a rules change by simple majority by getting Republicans to cave on just enough nominations to give them the cover not to change the rules. The future of the filibuster aside, Democrats got this, and then some. And, crucially, by standing firm, and escalating the threat level in a way that maintained credibility, they made it clear that there is a marker that Republicans must not cross — there is a point at which Republican obstructionism becomes so undemocratic and intolerable that Democrats will change the rules to put an end to it. That marker remains in place.
As for McCain’s circumventing of McConnell, Dems are hopeful that this signals what one aide calls a “schism” in the GOP caucus. Remember, McCain and Susan Collins broke with other Senate Republicans over the whole question of whether to enter into conference negotiations over the budget. McConnell sided with Tea Partyers such as Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, who insisted Republicans must not enter into talks unless Dems agree in advance not to ask for a debt limit hike as part of the talks. McCain dismissed this as completely at odds with how the Senate is supposed to function.
McCain’s negotiation with Dems to circumvent GOP opposition to Obama nominations — their filibustering of nominations for the explicit purpose of nullifying existing government agencies — will raise hopes among Dems that there is a growing bloc within the Senate that is prepared to challenge the leadership’s hostility to basic governing. The filibuster remains, but by standing firm and laying down a clear marker, Democrats showed that GOP unity in this regard can, indeed, be cracked.