The Supreme Court’s decision to strike down President Barack Obama’s recess appointments marked a big win for congressional Republicans — but Democrats are also giving themselves a pat on the back.
Democrats say the decision to rebuke Obama’s 2012 appointments to the National Labor Relations Board has made their change to Senate rules seem remarkably prescient. That change made it easier for the Senate to confirm Obama’s nominees, transforming recess appointments — a tactic to get around the chamber’s hurdles — into something of a relic.
That shift has already allowed Senate Democrats to squeeze through several nominees that might have been defeated under the old framework.
“Clearly this president has faced more opposition for even routine appointments, let alone important lifetime appointments like the judiciary. I’m sorry we had to change the rules and it’s created some pain in our Senate that’s still there,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “But there had to be a way for this president to lead.”
Under the new rules, most of Obama’s judicial and executive nominees need the support of just 51 senators to proceed, down from the previous threshold of 60 votes.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) cracked that the decision shows how “omniscient the rules change was” while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) bragged that the Supreme Court’s ruling will have “no effect on our ability to continue ensuring that qualified nominees receive an up-or-down vote.”
“More than anything, today’s Supreme Court ruling underscores the importance of the rules reform Senate Democrats enacted last November. Without that reform and with today’s ruling, a small but vocal minority would have more power than ever to block qualified nominees from getting a simple up-or-down vote on the floor,” Reid said in a statement.
But the decision by the court also makes the 2014 midterm elections even more consequential. There is no longer any backdoor method for Obama to install his nominees so if Republicans take the Senate this fall, the president’s nominees can be stymied at every turn.
With little hope right now for a large fiscal deal or even immigration reform in the next Congress, the 2014 battle for the Senate is at its most basic a referendum on whether the president should be able to fill out his team in the courts and at critical executive agencies.
“Who’s in control of the Senate means even more,” Schumer said.
Republicans widely praised the Supreme Court decision as one that swung the balance of power back toward the legislative branch — a disparity that’s grating on the GOP so much that House Republicans are preparing to sue the president for executive overreach.
“It is a reminder that our founders didn’t want a king,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a strong opponent of the rules change. “If the court had gone the other way we could have gone out for lunch and come back and we could have found a Supreme Court justice.”
But they said that Democrats are unwise to chest thump over the rules change — particularly given the GOP’s confidence that they will soon take the reins of the Senate. Alexander was incredulous at their “absurd” logic — and his colleagues agreed, arguing Democrats are wrong to claim victory for the rules change and misguided to allege they are confirming nominees that otherwise may have taken a recess appointment without the change.
“They could get through the president’s nominees through anyway,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Senate Republicans had lent their voice and support to the Noel Canning company that brought the lawsuit against the Obama administration — and they may yet attack the president’s ability to install his team again. If they take the majority, some Republicans like McCain are convinced they will change the threshold back to 60 votes for nominees, which would make it even more difficult for Obama to get his preferred judges and cabinet members in office under a Republican Senate.
“I think you’ll see a very strong effort and discussion around moving the rule back,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). “When you use the word conservative, what that means to most of his is preserving traditions.”