Conservatives pressure McConnell to go 'nuclear'

Conservatives are reviving their push for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellGOP senators pitch alternatives after House pulls ObamaCare repeal bill Under pressure, Dems hold back Gorsuch support Overnight Healthcare: Trump threatens to leave ObamaCare in place if GOP bill fails MORE (R-Ky.) to go “nuclear” on the rules of the Senate.

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While Republicans are relishing the chance to pursue an ambitions agenda in 2017, conservatives warn that one thing stands in their way: the Senate filibuster. 

The 60-vote procedural threshold could stymie GOP priorities in the upper chamber, disappointing voters who handed Republicans control of the White House and Congress for the first time in nearly a decade.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) warned that Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump angry Kushner, Ivanka went skiing during health debate: report Despite interim defeat on healthcare, Trump’s ethos prevailed McCain says he hasn't met with Trump since inauguration MORE’s supporters would be “really upset” if Republicans let “arcane rules” stand in the way of his agenda.

"You cannot use, they cannot use inside-the-ballpark Washington procedural reasons to justify why things don't happen,” he told radio host Charlie Sykes. 

Conservatives have argued for years that the filibuster gives Democrats too much leverage by allowing a minority to grind the Senate’s work to a halt, and they are using Trump’s surprise White House win to make the case for change.

Use of the filibuster has spiked under President Obama, and Democrats are virtually certain to use it to try and stall parts of Trump’s agenda. 

Once that happens, McConnell is likely to face intense from the administration, the House and conservative pundits to get rid of the 60-vote threshold for good. 

While Democrats would cry foul, it was Sen. Harry ReidHarry ReidThis obscure Senate rule could let VP Mike Pence fully repeal ObamaCare once and for all Sharron Angle to challenge GOP rep in Nevada Fox's Watters asks Trump whom he would fire: Baldwin, Schumer or Zucker MORE (D-Nev.) who decided to first go “nuclear” in 2013 and end the 60-vote threshold for most nominations, though not for Supreme Court judges.

Hugh Hewitt, an influential conservative radio host, pointed to the 2013 showdown, saying Republicans should use the “Reid rule” to get rid of the higher threshold for Supreme Court nominations. 

“Reid broke filibuster. So GOP will retain Reid rule for all judges including SCOTUS. Reversing the damage he did by so doing legit/crucial,” he said on Twitter.

Without a historic rule change, McConnell will need at last eight Democrat votes to get legislation or a Trump Supreme Court nominee through the upper chamber. 

McConnell isn’t tipping his hand on if he would consider changing the rules for Supreme Court nominations, or more broadly for legislation.

“I would not anticipate any particular strategy that the Democrats might employ to defeat it or what we might do in reaction to that,” he told reporters, questioned about Democrats’ potentially filibustering a Trump Supreme Court nominee.

But McConnell is widely considered an institutionalist who is loath to change Senate rules.

He has cautioned against Republicans overplaying their hand, warning that majorities are temporary, and that changing the filibuster could come back to bite them.

“Frequently new majorities think it’s going to be forever. Nothing is forever in this country," he told reporters. "We’ve been given a temporary lease on power, if you will. And I think we need to use it responsibly." 

But, at the same time, McConnell didn’t restore the 60-vote threshold for nominations once Republicans took over the Senate in 2015, and leaving the lower simple majority threshold would benefit Trump’s nominees next year.

A spokesman declined to comment on the Kentucky Republican's thinking regarding a rules change. 

It’s not the first time McConnell has been under pressure to rip up the filibuster.

Dozens of House Republicans, and some White House contenders, hounded him to “go nuclear” after Republicans failed to stop the Iran nuclear deal last year. 

Rep. Bill FloresBill FloresTrump warns Republicans ahead of healthcare vote The Hill's Whip List: 36 GOP no votes on ObamaCare repeal plan Conservative chairman faces blowback over ObamaCare statement MORE (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Republican Study Committee, indicated that House Republicans haven’t changed their mind and it’s time for Senate Republicans to have a “candid conversation.”

“I think it’s time for the filibuster to go away. It is a rule that is not part of the constitution. It is holding up the progress for the clear mandates that the American people gave us yesterday,” he said in an interview with The Hill. 

“If we want to have our Supreme Court nominees, we’ve got to go nuclear. If we want to have [appropriations] bills. ... We've got to go nuclear.”

Not all Republican officials back getting rid of filibuster. Michael Mukasey, an attorney general under President George W. Bush, said that it’s “important” to preserve the Senate rule for Supreme Court nominees.

“As long as it matters who gets appointed, that decision, given how long they sit, has to be one that comes only after overcoming great obstacles if necessary,” he said at a Heritage Foundation panel.

Senate Republicans are also largely sidestepping questions in the immediate wake of the election about breaking the filibuster, instead projecting optimism that they’ll be able to find common ground with Democrats. 

“There do have to some serious conversations among Republican senators. We can’t let the Democrats stop us from functioning,” Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) told a local radio station.

But asked if he supported breaking the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations, he demurred. 

Sen. Ron JohnsonRon JohnsonLawmakers share photos of their dogs in honor of National Puppy Day GOP targets Baldwin over Wisconsin VA scandal The Hill's Whip List: 36 GOP no votes on ObamaCare repeal plan MORE (R-Wis.), echoing McConnell, called breaking the filibuster a “dangerous weapon” because Republicans will eventually fall out of power. 

“Let’s try and work in good faith with the other side and maintain the 60-vote threshold,” he told Charlie Sykes. “At some point in time, Democrats will get a 51-vote majority, have the House, have the presidency. And then it’s Katy-bar-the-door in terms of an expansionary government.”

— Sarah Ferris contributed