CAPITOL HILL — The U.S. Senate appears to have averted an institutional crisis over the rights of minority Republicans to block votes - in this case, confirmation votes for presidential nominees to federal posts. It is not clear whether a bipartisan deal will prove to be anything more than a temporary solution to one element of congressional gridlock.
After months of delay, the Senate opted to proceed to a final vote on the first of seven nominations put forth by President Barack Obama that were blocked by Republicans through a procedure known as a filibuster.
Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley hailed the outcome. “The vote we took a short while ago is central to ending the paralysis that has generally haunted this chamber," he said.
Democrats had threatened to use their majority to change Senate rules and end Republicans’ ability to filibuster presidential nominees entirely. Such an unprecedented move, dubbed the “nuclear option,” would have further roiled a chamber already hobbled by sharp partisan divides.
Senators of both parties met behind closed doors for more than three hours late Monday in search of compromise. A deal emerged Tuesday to proceed with five of seven Obama nominees. In return, Republicans retain full filibuster rights in the future. New nominees would be named for two other posts to replace existing ones whose appointments were challenged in federal court.
Majority Leader Harry Reid said members of both parties should be pleased. "We [Democrats] get what we want, they [Republicans] get what they want. Not a bad deal," he said.
Republican Leader Mitch McConnell agreed. “A high level of collegiality on a bipartisan basis was achieved. It was an important moment for the Senate," he said.
But could new brawls erupt over filibusters of future presidential nominees? Absolutely, according to McConnell. “We still will be dealing with controversial nominees. And all the options available to the minority remain intact," he said.
Similarly, Majority Leader Reid said Democrats are “damn sure” about retaining the threat to change Senate rules if they feel the need to do so.
Political analyst Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution notes that Tuesday’s accord does not address filibusters of judicial nominations or actual legislation.
“I do not expect to see any change in what has become a 60-vote threshold for moving on anything else in the Senate," he said.
Once a rarely employed tool, the filibuster has become a regular part of Senate business. Filibusters now precede nearly every vote of consequence, and require a three-fifths supermajority to end debate and proceed to a vote.