NBC: McCain moving to head off filibuster change

In 2005, then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist threatened to end the filibuster for judicial appointments by forcing a mid-session rule change on a majority vote, an act that would have ended two centuries of precedent.  Before he could act, though, the Gang of 14 arose, led by Republican John McCain, to preserve the senatorial tradition, brokering a deal that left conservatives fuming by depriving Frist of his partisan majority.  Eight years later, with Harry Reid threatening to take the same action on executive-branch appointments, where is that Old Gang of Ours?  According to NBC, at least McCain might be riding to the fight:

Back in 2005, then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) took the Senate to the brink, threatening to change the filibuster rules to clear some of George W. Bush’s controversial judicial nominees. The move paid off: Cooler heads prevailed, Democrats and Republicans agreed on a compromise, and many — but not all — of those judicial nominees are now serving on the courts. Eight years later, with a different party in control of the Senate and White House, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is hoping to get a similar result by threatening the “nuclear option” to change the filibuster rules for only executive-branch appointments. The logic: This kind of threat is the only way to get some of President Obama’s appointees through the Senate, including the previously blocked picks to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the National Labor Relations Board (who are now serving as recess appointments). NBC’s Kasie Hunt reports that Sen. John McCain — like he did in 2005 — is trying to broker a deal.

We got an e-mail over the weekend asking us about the Gang of 14 and wondering why the Democrats in that group weren’t standing up to Harry Reid in the way that Republicans stood up to Bill Frist.  The short answer is that most of them aren’t standing in the Senate now anyway, and a couple of them are no longer with us at all.  Both Robert Byrd and Daniel Inouye have passed away in the intervening eight years, and Joe Lieberman, Ken Salazar, and Ben Nelson have left.

That only leaves Mary Landrieu (LA) and Mark Pryor (AR) from the previous Gang of 14 still in the Senate, but the question is good for them too.  Both face tough re-election efforts in red states next year; they’re already on the endangered-incumbents list even without this fight.  It’s a no-brainer that their Republican challengers will use Reid’s power grab against them if it succeeds.  Reid, however, has four votes to spare (five if Biden votes in a 50/50 split).  I’d expect Reid to let them vote against the rule change if it comes down to that.

But will it?  Chris Cillizza isn’t sure:

Of course, part of the way to win in politics (like poker) is to bluff so convincingly that the other guy (or gal) falls for it — even though you really never were willing to go all the way in. So, is Reid bluffing?

No, according to one Reid insider. “In his heart, he’s an institutionalist, but his caucus — and he — have reached a tipping point on executive nominees,” the source explained. “If no deal, he’ll do it.”

The final chance for a deal will come Monday night when the full Senate gathers in the Old Senate Chamber in hopes of hashing one out.

I think this has gone beyond bluff.  Reid got ripped by his allies for bailing out of filibuster “reform” at the beginning of the session. Raising it now without pulling the trigger — or at least getting a great deal in its place — will make him look too weak.  The caucus is driving the conflict, not Reid, so unless the caucus gets cold feet (and it may after the Schweitzer announcement this weekend), I’d bet this isn’t a bluff.

As Erika noted yesterday, all of this is to protect the illegally-recess-appointed Richard Cordray and the NLRB commissioners, and the regulations both have promulgated.  Any deal that doesn’t salvage those appointments and negate the appellate courts’ actions will fail to move Reid, but that doesn’t mean he’ll end up winning in the long run.  After a Republican President starts filling up the executive branch with conservatives and Senate Democrats in a minority have no way to stop him or her, the folly of this act will finally dawn on them.  That may take a while, but it won’t take forever, no matter what the Democrats of today may hope.