Politics

Senators Look to Move Past Nuclear Option

Bipartisanship touted when they return from recess

Maine Sen. Susan Collins said lawmakers should move on to an issue with bipartisan support, such as improving infrastructure. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Senators are getting some time away from the nation’s capital for the next week and half, following a tense battle over the Supreme Court. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell invoked the so-called nuclear option last Thursday to effectively change the Senate rules and lower the threshold for ending debate on high court nominees. While the move raised questions about whether the chamber had reached a partisan point of no return, senators were hopeful they could still come together on other issues.

“I’ve seen the Senate broken before and we always got past it,” Sen. Orrin G. Hatch said after the nuclear option vote last week. The seven-term Utah lawmaker is the chamber’s most senior Republican.

The recess will provide some time to regroup and even forge new bonds with colleagues during the typical recess activity of traveling together as congressional delegations abroad, said one senator.

“We travel together enough and it begins to build, rebuild, the connective tissue that has so badly frayed here,” Sen. Chris Coons said after last week’s vote. 

The Delaware Democrat attempted to forge a bipartisan compromise to avoid the nuclear option along with Maine Republican Susan Collins. They both said distrust on both sides thwarted their attempts to find a solution.

Lawmakers will have to come together as soon as they return to the Capitol, since they face an April 28 deadline to fund the government for the rest of fiscal 2017.

Opportunities ahead?

So far, it seems that bitter feelings over the Supreme Court standoff are not seeping into those funding negotiations.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said in a Tuesday press call that he suggested to Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney that lawmakers could reach an agreement on their own.

“I said to him the best thing he can do is let the four corners — House Republicans, House Democrats, Senate Republicans and Senate Democrats — negotiate this 2017 budget as well as a 2018 budget and we might be able to come up with things,” Schumer said, adding that McConnell did not appear to dispute that.

“I think talks are going pretty well right now, and the White House doesn’t need to throw a monkey wrench into it,” he said.

McConnell also pointed to the government funding negotiations as an opportunity for bipartisanship, noting that the Senate had been bogged down in processing President Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees.

The Kentucky Republican said Democrats were acting out due to a “deep depression over the outcome of the election.” Democrats have countered that those nominees are unqualified or have conflicts of interest.

“What I’d like to see after the recess is us, you know, get back to some semblance of normalcy,” McConnell said at a press conference last week. He later added, “We’ll have an opportunity to do it on the spending bill as soon as we get back.”

Moving forward

Some lawmakers remarked that the immediate aftermath of the nuclear option appeared different from when Democrats used the tactic in 2013 to lower the threshold for ending debate on lower court and executive branch nominees. 

“Yesterday, seemed so sanitary,” Tennessee Republican Bob Corker said Friday. “It was nothing like 2013. ... It was very pro forma.”

But Collins said it was actually an emotional day for her and many other senators. That’s partly why she and Coons were able to get 61 senators to sign onto a letter asking Senate party leaders to protect the legislative filibuster.

She crisscrossed the Senate floor during the nuclear vote series and gathered signatures quickly, an indication, she said, of “the anguish that many members went through” in changing the Senate rules for Supreme Court nominees.

While both Schumer and McConnell have said that the threshold to end debate on legislation should not be lowered, Schumer suggested that last week’s vote could signal more changes to the rules in years to come.

“Just as it seemed unthinkable only a few decades ago that we would change the rules for nominees, today’s vote is a cautionary tale about how unbridled partisan escalation can ultimately overwhelm our basic inclination to work together and frustrate our efforts to pull back, blocking us from steering the ship of the Senate away from the rocks,” Schumer said on the Senate floor Thursday.

At this point, it is not clear if Democrats will retaliate for the GOP invoking nuclear option. In 2013, Republicans responded by using procedural tools to slow some of President Barack Obama’s nominees.

Democrats have rebelled against some of Trump’s Cabinet nominees, and it remains to be seen if they will continue to do so on lower-level picks — most of whom have not even been selected.

According to The Washington Post, of the 553 key positions that require Senate confirmation, 478 do not have nominees to fill those positions.

Collins said she hoped Democrats would not retaliate for last week’s rule change.

“I really hope we can get past this tit-for-tat, this retaliatory atmosphere,” she said in a phone interview Tuesday. “It’s really not what the American people want to see us do and it is not the way for us to get things done.”

The four-term Maine lawmaker said distrust persists on issues such as judicial vacancies, addressing the 2010 health care law, and military action in Syria. But she pointed to a bipartisan issue that both the White House and Congress could support: infrastructure.

Though Democrats and Republicans differ on how to pay for an infrastructure package, Collins said they have a common goal in improving transportation and communications.

“It is a reliably non-ideological issue,” she said. “That would be my recommendation of an area where we could start forging those bonds of trust that allow us to produce a bipartisan bill in an area that is of great interest to our constituents, and that has support from the president, Republicans and Democrats alike.”

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.