by Sabrina Siddiqui and Ryan Grim
Posted: 07/17/2013 7:30 am EDT
WASHINGTON — On Dec. 8, 2011, Senate Republicans blocked the confirmation of Richard Cordray, President Barack Obama’s nominee to head his signature consumer watchdog agency. Cordray had 53 votes in his favor. But Republicans were filibustering, meaning Democrats needed 60 votes to break it.
The problem, Republicans said, was not with Cordray, a former Ohio attorney general, but with the structure of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. They vowed to block any nominee unless significant structural changes made the consumer bureau more accountable to Congress. The GOP’s demands included putting in place a five-member board rather than a single director, and a requirement that the agency’s budget be approved through the appropriations process, which would have allowed Republicans to defund it.
On Tuesday morning, 71 senators voted to move forward on Cordray’s confirmation, including 17 Republicans. Later in the day, Cordray was confirmed by a vote of 66-34. None of the GOP demands had been met.
So what changed? The politics around the filibuster.
In exchange for not going nuclear in the Senate — changing the rules for approving presidential nominees — Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) won Cordray and six other Obama nominations related to environmental, labor and consumer issues.
Reid was, for Reid, jubilant. When he spotted a HuffPost reporter in his office Tuesday afternoon, he joked, “I haven’t had a chance to tell you about it, but I have a helluva good story on Romney’s tax returns that nobody has,” referencing a previous interview he’d given.
Obama called Reid Tuesday to congratulate him, and had earlier called a handful of Democrats who had been reluctant to support the nuclear option, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). For all the celebration at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, a handful of junior members of the Senate made the Democratic victory possible.
Reid acknowledged as much Tuesday by sharing his weekly press conference with progressive Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.), two outspoken advocates of filibuster reform whose fight to improve Senate functionality dates to early 2009.
The image of the three men standing together was a far cry from January, when Reid brokered a modest rules change with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that left the likes of Merkley and Udall dissatisfied. In that fight, Merkley, backed by a coalition of more than 70 progressive and labor organizations, spearheaded a proposal with far-reaching consequences (it would have ended the silent filibuster) and pushed for Reid to use the nuclear option.
The resulting dynamic between the two Democrats at times grew tense, with Reid once scolding Merkley for urging donors to pressure members of their caucus who were reluctant to go nuclear. But even though he didn’t adopt the demands of his more progressive members, Reid came to agree with them as the GOP obstruction continued immediately after the January deal.
Republicans mounted filibusters on three of Obama’s cabinet nominees — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, CIA director John Brennan, and EPA nominee Gina McCarthy. Hagel and Brennan were later confirmed, but not without drama and delay. McCarthy’s fate hung in the balance until this week. The obstructionism climaxed when Republicans continued to block Caitlin Halligan, Obama’s pick to serve on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, forcing the president to withdraw the nomination.
This time, rather than battling, Reid and Merkley were working from the same script. Labor unions, which had waged an expensive campaign last winter to pressure Democrats to reform the filibuster, stayed mostly quiet this time around, as Reid appeared genuinely invested.
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