Morning Briefing: No Deal in Sight on Nuclear Option

Senate leaders are still talking today after a three-and-a-half-hour joint caucus Monday evening failed to head off a threat by Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to do away with filibusters on executive branch nominations. Reid is insisting that Republicans agree to the approval of seven nominees on which he filed cloture motions last week before he backs away from plans to use the "nuclear option" to change the rules through a gambit utilizing just a simple majority of 51 votes. The first vote is scheduled for this morning, on Richard Cordray to be permanent head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Today in the Senate: The chamber meets at 10 a.m., when Sen.-elect Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., is scheduled to be sworn in. Votes on seven cloture motions for executive branch nominations could start around 11 a.m. but may also be pushed to later in the week. If cloture is invoked on any of the nominations, there would be up to eight hours for debate prior to a vote on confirmation of the nomination, except for the nomination of Thomas E. Perez for Labor secretary, which would have up to 30 hours of debate.

Today in the House: The schedule is light, with three bills to be considered under suspension, including one (HR 1848) by Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., that would direct the Federal Aviation Administration to overhaul certification requirements for small airplanes. Meets at noon with legislative business starting at 2 p.m. and votes postponed until 6:30 p.m.

Today at the White House: President Barack Obama conducts a round of interviews with Spanish-language television anchors from Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles and New York to make the case for overhauling immigration laws.

FINANCIAL WATCHDOG GETS FIRST VOTE: The debate over confirming Cordray has always been more about the agency that the former Ohio attorney general was selected to run rather than his qualifications for the post.

Republicans tried to strike a deal with Democrats to replace the director’s position with a bipartisan commission and to shift CFPB funding to the regular appropriations process and away from the Federal Reserve, where the watchdog agency was placed under the 2010 financial regulatory overhaul (PL 111-203).

Democrats are digging in, charging that the GOP opposition is aimed entirely at undermining the law by defunding the agency meant to enforce rules protecting financial services consumers.

Obama installed Cordray through a recess appointment in January 2012 at the same time he named several members to the National Labor Relations Board. A federal court ruled that those NLRB appointments were illegal, clouding Cordray’s appointment even though he was not included in the court case. The administration is contesting the ruling at the Supreme Court. Obama renominated Cordray to the position earlier this year.

There were indications last night that enough Republicans will support Cordray today to cut off debate on his nomination. However, there is no such appetite for the next two scheduled cloture votes, which would occur on Obama’s renomination of two NLRB members whose recess appointments were ruled invalid. We’ll be watching the tense negotiations, and whether Reid allows the timetable for votes slip to accommodate a broader deal.

STANDOFF CLOUDS JUDICIAL PICKS: Though Reid’s threat to deploy the nuclear option is focused on executive branch nominees, it’s putting progressives who have long agitated for the swifter Senate confirmation of Obama’s judicial picks in a delicate spot.

Some prominent liberal legal groups have stopped short of endorsing the Nevada Democrat’s approach or asking that he broaden it, even though it almost certainly would result in the faster court confirmations they have sought. The Alliance for Justice and the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, among others, are taking a wait-and-see approach, believing the Senate’s cooler heads will prevail and head off a sweeping rules change.

Other groups on the left, such as the Center for American Progress say Reid should immediately change the rules to prevent filibusters on judicial nominees as well as executive branch picks, though it’s unclear whether he has the 51 votes he would need.

CQ reporter John Gramlich writes that fears about potential Republican retaliation loom over any decision. Republicans representing the home states of judicial nominees could, for example, begin to refuse to return "blue slips," a customary Senate sign of assent required for nominations to proceed through the Judiciary Committee.

APPROPRIATORS PROTECT COAST GUARD: Senate appropriators head into today’s markup of a fiscal 2014 homeland security spending bill with a proposal that is not far from that of their House counterparts, but with the effects of the sequester looming over the measure.

Chairwoman Mary L. Landrieu’s bill is expected to contain $39.1 billion in discretionary spending, a sum that exceeds spending levels dictated by the Budget Control Act (PL 112-25) and is likely to trigger opposition from panel Republicans. A $38.9 House-passed measure (HR 2217) also exceeds the level normally permitted by sequestration.

We’ll be watching whether Landrieu, D-La., and other appropriators, including Republicans Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, will try to add money for the Coast Guard to repair and upgrade older ships. CQ reporter Rob Margetta writes the Coast Guard funding will likely come at the expense of an Obama administration priority: a new $714 million animal disease lab known as the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility that the House opted to not fully fund.

PANEL VOTES ON WATT NOMINATION: Senate Banking is expected to advance the nomination of Rep. Melvin Watt to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency today, but his chances in the full Senate are less clear.

Panel Republicans strongly oppose the nomination, expressing concern Watt is a career politician who’s unqualified for the job and would embrace policy positions such as principal reduction if confirmed as FHFA director. Republicans have long opposed such loan forgiveness as a bailout to irresponsible homeowners.

We’ll be listening for whether Republicans rewarm those critiques or open new lines of attack in anticipation of a floor fight. Watt, a North Carolina Democrat and former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, would replace Edward J. DeMarco, who has been at odds with the Obama administration on major housing finance issues since becoming acting director in 2009.

Obama has struggled to fill the position. After he nominated Joseph A. Smith Jr., a North Carolina banking regulator, in November 2010, Senate Republicans promised to filibuster the nomination because they said he wouldn’t be an independent regulator. Smith declined to be renominated in January 2011.

BIPARTISAN HEALTH BILLS ADVANCE: House Energy and Commerce is due to mark up a pair of bipartisan bills today and Wednesday that could join the modest list of health policy accomplishments for the 113th Congress if no opposition emerges.

One measure (HR 698) would allow research on organ donations from individuals who are HIV-positive, reversing a decades-old ban and potentially paving the way for organs from HIV-positive donors to be transplanted into patients who are also HIV-positive. The Senate passed companion legislation (S 330) by unanimous consent on June 17.

A second bill (HR 2094) would give states preference for asthma grant funding if they meet certain requirements designed to help schools prepare for responding to allergic reactions.

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— Adriel Bettelheim, Morning Briefing editor,, on Twitter @abettel

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