Partisan Senate battles to take center stage this week

Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., left, walks off the Senate floor with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., after passing a bill to avoid the raise the debt ceiling and fund the government on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013, in Washington.
AP Photo/ Evan Vucci

With the House of Representatives out of town all week, all eyes in Washington will be on the Senate, where several high-profile issues will likely divide the chamber on party lines.

On Monday, the Senate is set to take up the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. It comes near the end of a year that has already seen major progress for the supporters of same-sex rights, with two Supreme Court decisions that affirmed the legalization of same-sex marriage in California and barred the federal government from denying benefits to same-sex couples who are legally married.

The legislation's success hinges on whether the bill's cosponsors can pick up a handful of Republican votes to prevent a potential filibuster on the legislation. Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., are cosponsors of the bill, and two more - Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah and Lisa Murkowski,R-Alaska - voted for it during the committee process over the summer. A few other Republicans could sign on, but the bill is not expected to get a major bipartisan vote.

A larger issue looms over the Senate in the form of President Obama's nominees to various agencies and courts who have been held up. Last Thursday, Senate Republicansblocked the confirmation of Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency, arguing that Watt is too political for the position. They also blocked the confirmation of Patricia Ann Millett to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, arguing that the court's caseload was too light, but also to prevent Mr. Obama from making any more appointments to the court, which often hears cases relating to executive branch authority such as regulations.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., voted against the nominations in order to preserve his authority under procedural rules to bring them up again - which he vowed to do "at some point in the very near future."

"I hope my Republican colleagues will reconsider their continued run of unprecedented obstructionism. Something has to change, and I hope we can make the changes necessary through cooperation," Reid said in a statement Thursday. It raises the question of whether he will seek to use the so-called"nuclear option," a procedural maneuver that would allow him to change the Senate rules with a 51-vote majority and make it more difficult for the minority party to use the filibuster. Whether Reid should take this step has come up recently; each time the majority leader was able tostrike deals to avert a bad end to the standoff.

But the fight is just ramping up this time and Republicans are finding reasons to filibuster two more upcoming confirmation votes: Janet Yellen to chair the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve and Jeh Johnson to lead the Department of Homeland Security.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.,threatened last week to block Yellen's confirmation unless Reid agreed to hold a vote on his legislation to audit the Fed, though he admitted in an interview on Bloomberg TV Friday that "in all likelihood," Yellen would still be confirmed.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has said he would hold up all of the president's nominees until Congress is allowed to interview survivors from the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.

"I don't think it's over the top to find out what happened, four dead Americans. I don't think it's over the top for the Congress to be able to challenge the narrative of any administration when an ambassador is killed. I don't think it's over the top for us to be able to talk to the survivors," Graham said on "Fox News Sunday." Referring to his pledge to hold up nominees, he said, "I shouldn't have to make these kind of threats. They should provide in a responsible way those who lived through Benghazi to be interviewed separate and apart from the Obama administration to find out exactly what happened before, during, and after."

White House Spokesman Jay Carney said earlier in the week that the administration has been "enormously cooperative" to work with the Congressional committees investigating the attacks, and the State Department told Graham in a letter last week that allowing the witnesses to testify or releasing their statements could jeopardize a criminal investigation.

It is unclear whether the rest of the Republican conference would go along with Graham's threat. Even Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., one of Graham's closest allies in the Senate, wouldn't commit to holding up nominees, but didn't it out, either. "I'm hoping we can work this out with the administration, but I assume that Republicans will come together because it's been so long," Ayotte said on CNN's "State of the Union."

On top of the non-discrimination legislation and nominees, the troubled Obamacare rollout is still at the top of the congressional agenda. On Wednesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is set to testify on the rollout of the online insurance exchanges through before the Senate Finance Committee.

Both Democrats and Republicans have been heavily critical of the work that went into building the website. On CBS' "Face the Nation" Sunday, both Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., saidthe site should be taken offline until it is fixed. And Ayotte said Mr. Obama should call a "time out" for the entire law and bring together a group of bipartisan leaders to address healthcare reform.

The administration and its allies continue to stand behind the law and the president's claims about it, including his repeated statements that those who liked their health insurance would be able to keep it. "For 95 percent of the people in America, that is the truth," saidMassachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick on NBC's "Meet the Press." "For the small number of people who have a health care plan which in fact will not insure them when they get sick, it is not true. And that's the whole point. If you have a preexisting condition, if you have the kind of health care that disappears when you need it most, the Affordable Care Act says that has to end."

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for