Washington Watch: U.S. Senate prepares “to go nuclear”

Th is week, Congress may just go “nuclear.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is threatening and pressing to use the “nuclear option” to confirm a handful of President Barack Obama’s executive branch nominees that the GOP repeatedly has threatened to filibuster.

Senate Republicans have routinely used the filibuster procedural move to require most confirmations and pieces of legislation to receive 60 votes, instead of a 51-vote majority.

Reid seems to have had enough and wants to move toward the “nuclear option,” which is changing Senate procedures so Obama’s nominees can receive confirmation with a simple majority. That’s how the House currently operates. But doing so could set a dangerous precedent in the Senate.

Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had some strongly worded exchanges on the matter Thursday, all while insincerely referring to each other as “my friend.” McConnell argued that Reid would go down as the “worst” Senate leader ever if he follows through with the threat, while Reid bemoaned McConnell’s tactics as “name-calling” and “crocodile tears.”

They even brought Sen. David Vitter into the conversation after the Louisiana Republican removed his longstanding filibuster threat of Obama’s nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy. Vitter announced this past week that the EPA agreed to comply with several of his information requests and, thus, he would allow a vote to move forward.

Reid said Vitter has “suddenly seen the light.”

“He’s responsible for 1,000 questions to her,” Reid said. “That’s what’s wrong here.”

McConnell argued that Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, requested 70,000 documents from McCarthy and the EPA.
“He (Vitter) was satisfied with the response he got. That’s how the process works,” McConnell said.

And the debate over the “nuclear option” continues.

But things aren’t going much better in the House. The chamber finally approved a federal farm bill Thursday, but only after deliberations had fallen apart to the point that the GOP leadership decided to split the bill in two and remove the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides food stamps.

“It’s the first step in dismantling and getting rid of food stamps altogether,” complained Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, calling the action “sinful.”

The House also is trying to decide how the address the “broken” immigration system after the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration overhaul with 68 votes that offers a “border surge” beefing up of border security and a decade-long pathway to citizenship for many of the 11 million living in the country illegally.

Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, who prefers a step-by-step approach of addressing border security first, unwittingly found himself in a feud with Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., after Cassidy circulated a letter to House leadership stating his opposition to the Senate bill.

“We believe the only way to properly reform our immigration system is through an incremental, step-by-step approach that ensures reforms are implemented in the proper order and significant progress is being made on each one,” the letter reads. “To attempt to do everything at once ensures that little will be done right and, more likely, that nothing will be done at all.”

Takano, a former high school literature teacher, took the clever and snarky approach of marking the letter up with a red pen like a teacher and giving it a failing “F” grade.

Takano criticized the letter for alleged exaggerations and “tawdry allegations” and he repeatedly wrote “evidence?!” next to the letter’s arguments and claims.

“The assignment was to address what should be done about the 11 million people already here. Did you purposefully leave that out?” Takano wrote. “If you don’t understand the bill — come by my office and I’ll explain it.”

Cassidy was none-too-pleased by Takano’s grading.

“Rep. Takano’s action and grandstanding represent everything Americans hate about Washington, but I won’t let his partisanship stand for all of us,” Cassidy said in a prepared statement.

Regardless of whether Congress is going “nuclear” or just name-calling, it can certainly feel like high school.

Jordan Blum is chief of The Advocate’s Washington bureau. His email address is jblum@theadvocate.com.