Senate leaders on Tuesday lauded a compromise on presidential nominations that averted a fight that was likely to thrust the chamber into partisan chaos.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in separate news conferences made official what was known on Capitol Hill throughout the morning and early afternoon: Democrats withdrew plans to employ the so-called nuclear option to change Senate rules and eliminate the minority's ability to filibuster President Obama's nominees and Republicans agreed to release their objection to five of seven long-delayed nominations Obama sent to the Hill months ago.
But the unresolved issue both leaders sidestepped was what will happen if Democrats and Republicans end up in a similar conflict during the remaining 18 months of the 113th Congress.
McConnell light-heartedly accused reporters who asked about this hypothetical but realistic scenario of trying to "rain" on a positive outcome and of "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory," emphasizing that "a high level of collegiality on a bipartisan basis was achieved." And Reid, while saying he was very "happy" and hopeful that this compromise inaugurated a new era of functionality in the Senate, made clear what would happen if relations between the parties deteriorate again.
"Feelings don't last forever, and I understand that," Reid told reporters. "They're not sacrificing their right to filibuster, and we -- damn sure -- aren't [giving up] our right to change the rules if necessary."
Reid's plan was dubbed the nuclear option because it would have ignored the Senate rule that mandates 67 votes to change any rule, and forged ahead with a complicated parliamentary procedure to curb use of the filibuster by requiring nominees to win a simple majority rather than the 60 votes now needed. The rule change would have eliminated the filibuster for non-judicial executive branch nominees. In 2005, the then-majority Republicans proposed going nuclear to get around Democratic filibusters of President George W. Bush's judicial nominees.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Reid's threat to employ the nuclear option was borne out of frustration that went beyond GOP obstruction of Obama's nominees. Democrats and Republicans, McCain said, have been frustrated by the chamber's dysfunction, with Democrats charging that the GOP has abused the filibuster and Republicans asserting that the Democrats have trampled their legitimate right under Senate rules to influence the process.
But ultimately, neither side really wanted to test how dysfunctional and partisan the Senate could become if Reid employed the nuclear option. Republicans feared that a chamber with a diminished filibuster could eventually turn them into a less relevant minority -- at least until the 2014 elections. And Democrats appeared to fear that all legislative business could grind to a halt if the Republicans followed through with threats to retaliate.
Reid noted that the need to negotiate a compromise immigration reform solution "is still ahead of us. ... It is a big hard bill." And even Democrats who favor filibuster reform generally suggested they were more interested in getting Obama's nominees through -- particularly Richard Cordray as head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau -- than they were in changing the rules. Cordray was poised for confirmation Tuesday evening.
For the Republicans, the victory was getting the Obama administration and Senate Democrats to pull two nominees to the National Labor Relations Board that the president had previously installed during a disputed congressional recess. A federal court later found those recess appointments unconstitutional, and the GOP took solace in the fact that McConnell months ago offered to allow Obama's labor board picks through if he replaced the same two controversial nominees.
The nearly four-hour closed door joint caucus meeting on Monday evening was credited by senators of both parties with giving them a forum to hear each others concerns and appreciate their points of view, which they said is rare in today's Senate.
Ultimately, neither side wanted to be responsible for diminishing the Senate as an institution and suffering the practical consequences of what that might mean.
"I'm pleased that the Democrats decided to not break the rules to change the rules," Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said.