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Shaheen, Ayotte support deal averting 'nuclear option' rules reform

From staff and wire service reports
July 16. 2013 7:02PM

New Hampshire's two U.S. senators voiced support Tuesday for an agreement averting a so-called "nuclear option" that would have resulted in a potentially damaging rules change ending any ability for the minority party to block presidential appointments.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had threatened to change Senate rules to require only simple majority vote on many presidential nominees after Republicans effectively blocked several of President Barack Obama's nominations to key posts.
After intense talks over the past two days, Reid and the Democratic majority backed away from a potentially historic crackdown on filibusters in exchange for a Republican commitment to stop using them to block some long-stalled nominations, Reuters reported.

Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen said in a statement she was pleased the compromise was reached.

"I've always believed that all Presidents, regardless of party, should be allowed to fill their own cabinets," Shaheen said.

She said she hoped the agreement "helps lay the foundation for greater bipartisan cooperation on the many important issues facing the country."

But Shaheen did not rule out supporting the so-called "nuclear option" in the future.

"I hope the compromise we struck today prevents further obstruction on executive branch nominations in the future," she said, "but if it doesn't, I would consider rules reform."

Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte also voted in favor of the compromise, which passed the Senate, 71-29.

"This vote preserves the integrity of the U.S. Senate and the voice of the minority on executive branch nominations," Ayotte said.

The agreement came after a rare meeting of almost all U.S. senators behind closed doors on Monday night.

Only two of the 100 senators missed the meeting, at which a quorum call was conducted but no votes were taken, and Shaheen was one of the two.

Her spokesman, Shripal Shah, emailed, "Senator Shaheen had a scheduling conflict that Senate leadership was aware of prior to last night's meeting." He did not elaborate.

New Hampshire Republican Party chair Jennifer Horn Republican called on Shaheen to explain why she "didn't participate in an important meeting about the future of the United States Senate.

"New Hampshire deserves to be represented by both of its U.S. senators at critical meetings like this, and Jeanne Shaheen must tell her constituents why she was unable to do her job (Monday) night," said Horn.

State Democratic Party spokesman Harrell Kirstein responded, "Each passing day the NHGOP's petty stunts and misleading attacks grow increasingly desperate and groundless.

"The people of New Hampshire know Senator Jeanne Shaheen, and they know she's on their side, fighting for middle class families and small businesses," Kirstein said.

The agreement will reportedly allow Obama to fill out his second-term term with top administrators while allowing Republicans to retain their right to stop future nominees with filibusters, which are procedural hurdles used for years by the Senate's minority to stop the chamber's majority.

"They (Republicans) are not sacrificing their right to filibuster, and we for damn sure aren't sacrificing our right to change the rules" to ban them, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said: "Put this down as progress in the right direction."

Republican Senator John McCain, who helped negotiate the agreement, said, "People walked to the edge of the abyss and then we walked back."

"I don't know that this is going to come again anytime soon. It may, depending on what goes on in the Senate," said McCain.

The first sign of agreement came when the Senate, on a vote of 71-29, with 17 Republicans joining all 52 Democrats and two independents, cleared the way for an up-or-down vote on Obama's choice of Richard Cordray to serve as director of the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection.

Under the agreement, Reid yielded to Republican calls that Obama withdraw two nominees to the National Labor Relations Board, whose temporary nominations were invalidated by the federal courts, and offer new ones.

The new nominees would be picked with the help of organized labor, a traditional ally of Democrats, and Republicans would agree to confirm them by Aug. 1, congressional aides said.

"These two nominees will be even more liberal than the current ones," a senior Democratic aide said.

Republicans have opposed NLRB nominees Sharon Block and Richard Griffin, whose temporary appointments to the board by Obama were invalidated by the federal courts. The case is now on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Republicans have long called on Obama to offer replacement nominees.

Other nominees set to be voted on by the Senate in coming days are: Fred Hochberg to be president of the U.S. Export-Import Bank; Thomas Perez to be labor secretary, and Gina McCarthy to be head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Democrats have received assurances that the three will be confirmed.

Filibusters have long been a central tool in the Senate to permit the minority to extend debate and pressure the majority to compromise.

But in recent years, each side, when in the majority, has accused the minority of using the filibuster to create partisan gridlock rather than to find bipartisan solutions.

Without an agreement, Democrats have said their aim would be to reduce to 51 from the current 60 the number of votes needed to end filibusters against executive branch nominees. The party controls the Senate by 54-46.

Normally 67 votes are needed to change Senate rules, but Democrats could do it with just 51 under "the nuclear option," which would involve a ruling by the Democratic chair, which is often filled by Vice President Joe Biden, the chamber's president.

The Republicans threatened to change the rules in a similar way when they controlled the Senate in 2005, but backed off amid warnings from fellow Republicans that the Democrats would benefit if and when they controlled the Senate.

(Senior Political Reporter John DiStaso and Reuters contributed to this report.)