WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid warned Republicans on Monday that if they do not permit seven of President Barack Obama’s executive-branch nominees to be confirmed, he would move to strip Republicans of their power to stop such nominations with procedural hurdles known as filibusters.
Republican Senator John McCain said he and about 10 other lawmakers were trying to reach a bipartisan compromise, but it was unclear if they could get one before the Senate was set to begin voting on the nominees on Tuesday.
McCain said if there is no deal in the already divided Senate, a new round of partisanship would “grind the chamber to a halt.”
All 100 senators were invited to a meeting that began at 6 p.m. EDT (2200 GMT) to air differences and possibly find a way to avert an unprecedented Senate rule change that would dramatically alter how the chamber operates.
Reid said he would go to the meeting, but would not compromise on his demand that all seven nominees - some of whom have waited for a Senate vote for more than a year - be confirmed.
Senate votes are to begin on Tuesday on: Richard Cordray to be director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; Richard Griffin, Sharon Block and Mark Pearce to be members of the National Labor Relations Board; Fred Hochberg to be president of the U.S. Export-Import Bank; Thomas Perez to be labor secretary; and Gina McCarthy to be head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Reid has threatened to invoke a procedural power play known as the “nuclear option” to change the Senate rules so that a filibuster in the 100-member chamber could be ended with a simple majority vote rather than the current requirement of 60 votes. Democrats hold the Senate, 54-46.
Current Senate procedures state that 67 votes are needed to change its rules. But Democrats could do it with 51 votes by rewriting the rule book an unprecedented use of “the nuclear option.”
“The Senate is broken and needs to be fixed,” Reid, the top Democrat in Congress, said in a speech earlier in the day at the Center for American Progress, a liberal advocacy group.
Reid has said he would seek to change the filibuster rules only on executive-branch posts, not on judicial nominees or legislation.
The filibuster has long been part of the Senate’s basic fabric, allowing the minority to extend debate and pressure the majority to compromise.
But Democrats have accused Republicans of recklessly using the filibuster to block qualified Obama nominees for a variety of jobs, contributing to political gridlock in Washington.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has denied that his party has obstructed nominees, noting that more than 1,500 of Obama’s picks had been confirmed during the past four and one-half years, many overwhelmingly.
McConnell has accused Democrats of getting ready for “a power grab” by moving to “change the rules by breaking the rules.”
While the Senate can set its own rules, Reid contends that under the U.S. Constitution only a simple majority is needed for most Senate action, including confirmation of nominees.
“The Founding Fathers wanted an up-or-down vote, and that’s basically what we have been crying for now for years,” Reid said.
The Constitution calls for a super majority only in certain instances, such as to impeach a president, override a presidential veto, ratify a treaty or approve a constitutional amendment.
In a brief question-and-answer session after his speech, Reid was asked if Republicans could avert a rules change by confirming at least some of the nominees.
“No,” Reid said, adding that his demand for all seven nominees was non-negotiable.
“No one questions their capabilities, their credentials, their integrity,” said Reid, who accused Republicans of blocking them merely because they do not like the agencies they would head.
“We want to make a simple change. It will apply to whoever is our next president, Democrat or Republican. It will apply to President Obama,” Reid said.
Reporting by Thomas Ferraro and Richard Cowan; Editing by Will Dunham and Lisa Shumaker