Filibuster change could expand field of future nominees
By: Reid J. Epstein
November 21, 2013 05:19 PM EST
The Senate’s new 51-vote threshold to break a filibuster of President Barack Obama’s appointees is good news for most of those waiting for executive branch confirmations.
For Janet Yellen at the Federal Reserve, Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) at the Federal Housing Finance Agency and Jeh Johnson at the Department of Homeland Security, the White House hopes the Senate’s rule change will mean means confirmation votes in December with Democratic majorities, a White House aide said Thursday.
The White House also believes that changing the filibuster rules — the so-called nuclear option — changes the game on future nominations, allowing it to expand the field of potential choices.
No longer would Obama have to consider whether at least five Republicans will allow a vote to take place; now the president and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid only need to hold together their fellow Democrats — and not even all of them at that.
Removing the prospect of waiting months to work through a filibuster-threatened confirmation process has also in the past shrunk the field for potential nominees because people did not want to be held in limbo, noted White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
“There have been qualified individuals who have withdrawn from the process because of the obstruction that they face in the Senate,” Earnest told reporters Thursday.
Obama already has vacant posts to fill for financial and regulatory positions for which he will not have to consider the political necessity of winning GOP assent for an up-or-down vote.
Asked if the Senate rule change would mean Obama would move briskly to fill vacant positions, Earnest said he would not predict “what kind of bearing it will have on the pace of nominations.”
Watt’s nomination may be among the first to proceed due to the new rules.
“We’ll bring him to the floor soon and he’ll be confirmed,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).
Still, the rule change doesn’t make it any more likely that Obama will change course with his most controversial nominees – or would-be nominees.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius had thought to be safe because no replacement could pass the 60-vote hurdle. Yet given the troubled Obamacare rollout, it’s not clear that a new HHS secretary could win 51 votes in the Senate.
The same goes for Jeh Johnson, who last month Obama nominated to run Homeland Security. His nomination passed out of committee Wednesday but could face opposition from Democratic senators.
At the Agriculture Department, Obama will need to appoint a replacement for the nation’s top food safety official, Elisabeth Hagen, who announced last week her intent to resign in mid-December.
The Senate’s rule change will alter the senators on whom Obama’s nominees will depend. Instead of Republicans like John McCain of Arizona, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska who regularly helped Democrats get to 60 votes end debate, the focus will be on the moderate Democrats who sometimes buck the White House and party leadership.
One of those, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), voted against invoking the nuclear option Thursday because he said the move was too much too fast.
“I voted against the rules changes today because they simply went too far,” Manchin said in a statement. “I firmly believe that the filibuster is a vital protection of the minority views and exactly why the framers of our Constitution made the Senate the ‘cooling saucer.’”
Others who may now see a clearer path to confirmation include Obama’s nominee to head the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Timothy Massad, and Terrell McSweeny, who in June was nominated to the vacant Democratic seat on the Federal Trade Commission.
McSweeny’s nomination passed out of the Senate Commerce Committee this month but no vote has yet been scheduled for his confirmation.
And John Koskinen’s nomination to become the next IRS commissioner remains pending before the Senate Finance Committee. Koskinen would replace the then-acting commissioner Steve Miller, who left the agency after the tea party controversy erupted in May.
A hearing is expected shortly and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the committee’s top Republican, said the filibuster changes were not relevant to the Koskinen nomination.