Reid seizes GOP fumble – Politico

Posted: Saturday, December 13, 2014

Senate conservatives are trying to make a point about President Barack Obama’s immigration policy this weekend, but the end result might be Senate Democrats getting everything they wanted out of the last days of their power.

Lawmakers trod into the Senate for an incredibly rare session on Saturday to begin working through as many as 20 of the president’s nominations, including controversial figures like Vivek Murthy to be the new surgeon general, White House adviser Tony Blinken to be the deputy secretary of State and Sarah Saldana to head Immigration and Customs enforcement and a number of federal judges.

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Republicans fought Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for months to block these nominees from moving forward and many believed as late as Friday that they’d won as the holidays approached. But when Sens. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee took to the floor on Friday night to call for a vote on the president’s executive action and demand their colleagues stay through the weekend to do so, they allowed Reid to exploit a procedural quirk and get the nominations rolling.

Now there’s little Republicans can do to stop him — though Cruz’s allies argue that Reid was likely to keep the Senate in session to move on these nominations no matter.

(Also on POLITICO: The president, the panic, and the cromnibus)

When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was asked if he was frustrated with his conservative members on Saturday, he responded to a pair of reporters with a wink and a smile.

While the chamber still has to act on a stopgap funding bill to prevent a brief government shutdown on Sunday, the Senate is on cruise control toward eventual approval of a massive government funding bill on Monday. Republican leaders said they were confident there’d be no temporary lapse in funding.

“I’m hoping this is just a temporary diversion from our work and we’ll talk to everybody concerned and see if there’s a path forward,” said Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas). “Nobody’s talking about a shutdown except for Democrats and the press.”

As McConnell came into the Senate just before noon Saturday he said he was surprised that the deal to vote Monday had been scuttled Friday night after he’d left the Senate on Friday night, but said he was confident the government’s lights would stay on.

(Also on POLITICO: Messy end to funding fight)

“We’ll finish up with everything, it’s pretty much an automatic pilot. We’ll get to the end of the trail whenever that may be,” he said.

The nominations may take days of procedural votes and a lot energy but are likely to be a boon to the president’s hopes of winning approval of as many nominees as possible before his party loses the Senate.

“A lot of these people have been sitting in the calendar for a long time. So if this prompts my leadership to stay a little longer to get a lot of nominations done, then I’m happy about that,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) of the unusual Saturday session.

Reid and McConnell (R-Ky.) labored on Friday to complete a year-end deal to move the House-passed $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill, a terrorism risk insurance package and a series of tax breaks for businesses and individuals. But Republicans are sick of Democrats exploiting last year’s Senate rules change to unilaterally push through key executive and judicial nominations and refused to acquiesce to Democratic confirmation desires as the GOP prepares to take control of the Senate in January.

(Also on POLITICO: Omnibus shows Obama losing grip on Pentagon spending)

As approval of Obama’s team became the sticking point of wrapping up the Senate session, McConnell and Reid decided the best course of action was to send Obama a bill funding the government through Wednesday, shutter the Senate for the weekend and pass the omnibus on Monday. This would spare a chamber filled with lame duck senators and exhausted aides from a trying weekend session and preserve Republicans’ leverage over nominees (GOP leaders believe the longer the session drags on, the less likely ousted Democratic lawmakers will be willing to stick around as the holiday approaches simply to work through time-draining nomination votes).

But conservatives are having none of it. After McConnell and many of his colleagues had left the Senate thinking a voting deal was sealed, Cruz of Texas and Lee of Utah took the Senate floor late on Friday to demand a vote defunding the president’s signature executive action shielding millions of undocumented immigrants from deportations as a condition to kick the battle to Monday. Reid refused.

And Lee denied senators a two-day break from the bitter partisanship of the chamber.

“The American people have grave concerns with the president’s decision to take action unilaterally with regard to executive amnesty,” Lee said. “I don’t see any reason to do this. I don’t see any reason why the United States Senate should suspend its operations while the American people are waiting for us to act. I don’t see any reason why we should wait until Monday.”

The decision irked Republican leaders because it allowed Reid to begin setting up votes on a controversial surgeon general nominee that has linked gun violence and public health, the elevation of a White House adviser to the State department, a politically charged ICE director and lifetime court appointments that the GOP has fought tooth and nail. McConnell had sought to have no confirmation work this weekend, preserving the GOP’s leverage next week as the Christmas holiday approached and Democrats’ patience ran thin.

Informed that confirmation of nominations was now rolling on Saturday much earlier than expected by Republicans, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) replied: “I wish you hadn’t pointed that out.”

Though Republicans began fighting Reid tooth and nail and are requiring dozens of cumbersome procedural votes on Saturday as Reid sets up confirmation votes for next week, there’s ultimately nothing the GOP can do to stop him. The omnibus is still headed toward clearing a filibuster at 1 a.m. Sunday and final passage on Monday at 7 a.m. at the latest, regardless of Lee and Cruz’s objections, and as long as there are more Democrats than Republicans in Washington Obama’s nominees can be confirmed by Reid’s caucus.

Cruz failed in his attempt to receive a vote on Friday attacking Obama’s immigration action but is expected to receive one on Sunday as he seeks to raise a constitutional point of order to the omnibus’s funding of the Department of Homeland Security’s immigration arm.

“This procedural tool will ensure that every senator will be on record regarding the constitutionality of President Obama’s illegal amnesty,” said Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for Cruz.

Had he and Lee agreed to Reid and McConnell’s deal, the conservatives could have received the same vote on Monday, though they may be able to garner extra attention during the rare Sunday session. But because the point of order is likely to be defeated, the result will be the same: The omnibus will eventually pass without defunding the immigration order — and Obama appears set to win quicker approval of his nominations.


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