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April 15, 2014

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LETTER FROM WASHINGTON:

To his chagrin, Reid hints at more potential filibuster fights

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Cathleen Allison / AP

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid addresses a joint session of the Nevada Legislature, in Carson City, Nev., on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013. (AP Photo/Cathleen Allison)

Barely 24 hours after striking a deal to end the procedural filibuster on executive nominees, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was nervous.

Sitting for an interview with Nevada reporters in his office as the Senate voted on the nomination of Tom Perez for labor secretary, Reid intermittently checked his watch and stole glances at the door, waiting for news of what was happening on the floor. It was the third in a series of seven nominations that were part of the deal he'd just closed.

Soon, a staffer poked his head in.

“We’re at 60,” he told Reid.

Reid smiled and relaxed back in his seat.

That procedural vote for Perez was 60-40 — exactly enough to clear a filibuster threat, set Perez up for a final confirmation vote and keep Reid’s filibuster deal alive. Eventually, the Senate confirmed all seven nominees that Republicans and Democrats had agreed would be approved in exchange for Reid not ending the procedural filibuster by majority fiat, known as the “nuclear option.”

But a series of close scrapes during and since that deal was carried out have Reid sounding nervous again — and hinting that July’s debacle may not be the last time that Reid threatens to undo a long-held rule of congressional procedure.

“It’s been abused, and if it continues to be abused, I’m confident the rules will be changed,” Reid said Friday on KNPR’s "State of Nevada" program. “We don’t want the House and the Senate to be exactly the same, but unless things change, I think that’s where we’re headed.”

Reid has long held that he can change the governing rules of the Senate — which include a procedural filibuster threat that can only be beaten by 60 votes — with a simple majority.

“The filibuster is not part of the Constitution. It was developed to help get legislation passed,” Reid said. “But now, it’s being used to stop legislation from passing.”

Reid often quotes a favorite statistic to emphasize that procedural filibusters have become too common: In Lyndon Johnson’s six years as majority leader, he had to contend with only one filibuster; in Reid’s six and a half years, he’s had to face 420.

Procedural filibuster threats aren’t measured in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"-type speeches. They are counted in the number of times a majority leader has to file cloture, a move that sets up a vote to achieve a 60-vote, filibuster-proof threshold. Sometimes, Reid files cloture in response to stated Republican opposition; sometimes, he anticipates that opposition and files cloture right off the bat. It depends on the bill, the nominee and the climate of Congress at that moment.

Looking ahead to an autumn in which Reid hopes to fill vacancies for secretary of homeland security, director of the federal Housing Finance Agency and at least one judgeship on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, Reid sees more potential fights.

Reid said he hoped to “switch the majority” on that court, which recently ruled that President Barack Obama’s recess appointment of National Labor Relations Board members was unconstitutional. Reid called the ruling “terrible.”

A case concerning Yucca Mountain is also pending before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Reid suggested that he wouldn’t seek to end the procedural filibuster for legislation, noting that “it helps the Senate to get things done if we have a little bit more than a majority.”

Reid noted that he usually needs just six Republicans to help him on legislative matters. But when it comes to nominations, the only senators he’s counting on are his own.

“The filibuster dealing with nominations, we can handle that,” Reid said. “I have enough votes to handle that.”

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