By Alexander Bolton - 11/22/13 06:00 AM EST
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) did not know if he had the votes to trigger the nuclear option at the start of last week.
A Democratic leadership aide said he had not yet conducted a whip count and an outside liberal group that worked closely with him to advocate for filibuster reform said he was short of the 50 votes needed.
Reid never told his colleagues when he surpassed the mark. He simply called for a vote on the floor. That’s when Democrats knew they were about to enact one of the biggest Senate rules changes in decades.
“I just assumed he would never take it to the floor unless he had the votes. He’s too shrewd a vote counter. He really knows the Senate,” said a Democrat senator.
Several Republican senators tried to patch together a deal in the final hours to avoid the nuclear option.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a well-respected centrist, said Republicans could agree to confirm one of President Obama’s nominees to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals if Democrats agreed to let the other two languish and dropped the threat of the nuclear option, according to a source familiar with the talks.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the Senate GOP’s principal dealmaker this Congress, urged Reid to consider it and other proposals instead of a rules change.
In the end, Reid said he would accept nothing less than confirmation of all three of Obama’s nominees to the D.C. Circuit, the second most powerful court in the nation, which has primary jurisdiction over the Affordable Care Act.
Outside groups had worked for months to persuade Reid to curb the minority party’s power to filibuster nominees. But in the end, Reid worked largely alone. His decision to trigger the nuclear option — so dubbed because it’s viewed as a dramatic escalation of partisan tactics — caught them by surprise.
Two members of the Fix the Senate Now coalition predicted earlier this week that Reid would not try to eliminate the power to filibuster executive and sub-Supreme Court judicial nominees before the end of the year.
Reid clinched support for changing the rules at the weekly Tuesday Senate Democratic caucus lunch.
He opened the meeting with a passionate speech announcing his decision to move ahead with a unilateral change of the filibuster rule. His plan was to overturn a ruling of the presiding chair with a simple majority vote, an aggressive tactic that several senior members of his caucus had long opposed.
After months of Republican obstruction, which culminated in the shutdown of the federal government in October, even longtime skeptics of a sudden rules change were finally ready to curb the minority party’s power to delay.
“Harry made an impassioned plea,” said a Democratic lawmaker, who described Reid’s remarks as similar to what he delivered on the Senate floor Thursday. “He said this is where we’re headed.”
Speaking on the floor shortly before the momentous vote, Reid declared Thursday: “The American people believe Congress is broken. The American people believe the Senate is broken. And I believe the American people are right.”
Reid, without mentioning the colleague’s name, told his caucus that one of its senior members who had long opposed filibuster reform, recently had a change of mind and privately urged him to trigger the controversial tactic.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) then rose before the room full of Democrats and identified herself as the recent convert.
“She got up right afterward and said, ‘He was talking about me,’” said a Democratic senator.
Feinstein said she was dismayed that the informal agreement Senate Republicans and Democrats struck on nominees during a rare joint meeting in the Old Senate Chamber in July had quickly disintegrated.
“I spent three hours in the Old Senate Chamber with both parties. And I listened to the discourse, which was amiable,” she told reporters that day. “And we left, and I think we all felt good. And it lasted maybe one week or two weeks.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) also delivered a pivotal speech at the meeting, urging colleagues in his gravely baritone to set aside their concerns and follow Reid.
“Patrick just said, ‘I think it’s time we do this, I’m going to follow the leader,’” said a lawmaker who attended the meeting.
The lawmaker said Reid galvanized support when he made it clear to his colleagues that he had made a decision and was going to move forward.
“I don’t think we did [have the votes],” said the source. “Until he really pushes and he says, ‘I’m going to do this,’ and goes to individual senators, people are on the fence.”
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, made a last-ditch effort to divert Reid by proposing that Democrats hold another meeting with Republicans in the Old Senate Chamber, said two sources familiar with the meeting.
Too many Democrats had lost their patience with repeated Republican filibusters and roundly dismissed Levin’s proposal.
“That would have just been more window dressing,” said a Democratic source.
Levin told The Hill Thursday he dies not remember making such a suggestion at the private meeting.
“But I think it would have been a good idea,” he said.