Senate Democrats are not going to be able to block Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions bid to become attorney general. And they can’t do much to stop Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo from assuming the helm of the CIA.
And they have only themselves to thank for it.
That’s because exactly three years ago, the Democratic Senate majority — led by Harry Reid (Nev.) — rammed through controversial rules fundamentally changing the way the Senate does business. They unleashed in November 2013 what’s called the “nuclear option” allowing senators to approve by a simple majority all presidential appointments to the executive branch and the judiciary, with a big exception for Supreme Court justices.
Democrats took the controversial step because they were so frustrated by what they saw as Republican foot-dragging on President Obama’s choices for his administration and federal judgeships. Under the new rules, it takes only a simple majority of senators to confirm such appointments instead of the 60 typically needed to force Senate action.
But now that Trump is in the White House and Republicans control the Senate, Democrats have lost their most powerful weapon to block his appointments. Democrats will have 48 seats in the new Senate.
The architect of the rules change, outgoing Senate Minority Leader Reid (D-Nev.), says he doesn’t regret his decision to go nuclear.
“Sen. Reid has no regrets on invoking the nuclear option because of Republicans’ unprecedented obstruction,” said Reid spokeswoman Kristen Orthman. “The nuclear option lets presidents show their true colors and guarantees a nominee a fair up-or-down vote. If Republicans want to go on record supporting radicals, that’s their decision and they will have to live with it.
Incoming Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) noted that he opposed the rules change in the first place.
“I wanted 60 for Supreme Court and Cabinet, but I didn’t prevail,” Schumer said in an interview Friday, in which he also expressed hope that Trump would nominate “mainstream” candidates.
“If it’s somebody who is out of the mainstream,” he added, “we’ll fight tooth and nail and use every tool we have.”
The problem is, those tools are now severely limited. It would fall to Republicans to join Democrats to stand in the way of any Trump appointment deemed objectionable.
“The most controversial nominees should attract Republican opposition as well as Democratic,” said Thomas Mann, a congressional expert with the Brookings Institution. “If they don’t, it’s speaking volumes about the Republican Party, and Democrats are relatively powerless to do anything about that.”
Republicans warned at the time that Democrats were making a mistake with what they called a “power grab,” warning they would be sorry about the change when they eventually found themselves in the minority.
Democrats defended the decision crucial to forcing action in a Washington gripped by partisan warfare. “The important distinction is not between Republicans and Democrats, it is between those who are willing to help break the gridlock in Washington and those who defend the status quo,” Reid said in 2013.
In 2013, then-Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned the GOP could easily seize power back in the 2014 elections – which they did, securing the majority in the Senate.
And that’s now what’s happened.
Republican senators generally rallied around Sessions on Friday after his appointment to lead the Justice Department was announced.
“Jeff is principled, forthright, and hardworking,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a statement Friday. “I look forward to the Senate’s fair and expeditious treatment of our colleague’s forthcoming nomination, just as it promptly processed President Obama’s first Attorney General nomination.”
But Senate Judiciary Committee ranking Democrat Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) had harsh words for his colleague.
“Senator Sessions and I have had significant disagreements over the years, particularly on civil rights, voting rights, immigration and criminal justice issues. But unlike Republicans’ practice of unprecedented obstruction of President Obama’s nominees, I believe nominees deserve a full and fair process before the Senate,” Leahy said in a statement. “The American people deserve to learn about Senator Sessions’ record at the public Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.”
Leading Democrats have also been voicing grave concerns about Pompeo, a member of the House Intelligence Committee and one of the more vocal members of the House’s Benghazi panel investigating Clinton.
Pompeo was also one of the more outspoken opponents of the Iran nuclear deal, leading a campaign to publicize the “secret side deals” between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency. The Kansas Republican has drawn sharp rebukes from U.S.-based Muslim organizations for saying faith leaders who don’t denounce terrorist acts done in the name of Islam are “potentially complicit” in the attacks.
“Congressman Mike Pompeo, a leading cheerleader of the Benghazi witch hunt, is now being asked to fill one of the most serious and sober national security positions there is,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement Friday.
Republicans could go even further in trying to expand the Democratic rules change, requiring a simple majority to approve Supreme Court nominations, of which Trump stands ready to make at least one.
Democrats are hoping they don’t go that far.
“We deliberately said, I said at the time, the Supreme Court is different than the lower courts,” Schumer said in an interview Friday. “They understand we didn’t change the rules and they didn’t treat [Obama Supreme Court nominee] Merrick Garland well. They shouldn’t be so extreme. We’ll see what happens after that.”