WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate’s top Democrat and Republican yielded no ground on Sunday as they neared a showdown over President Barack Obama’s executive-branch nominees that could dramatically change how the Senate operates.
Appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid charged that Republican obstructionism has prevented Obama from getting much of his second-term team in place.
Unless Republicans permit a number of Obama’s nominees to be confirmed this week, Reid has threatened to change the rules and strip Republicans of their ability to block the president’s picks with procedural roadblocks known as filibuster.
Nominees set for vote on Tuesday include Richard Cordray as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; Gina McCarthy to head of the Environmental Protection Agency; Thomas Perez as labor secretary, and three picks for the National Labor Relations Board.
“I want everyone to hear this. The changes we are making a very, very minimal,” Reid said, sounding as if a final decision had already been made.
“What we are doing is saying, ‘Look American people, shouldn’t President Obama have somebody working for whom he wants?'” Reid said.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell his party was obstructing the process and urged Democrats to reconsider plans for an unprecedented change in Senate rules.
Filibusters have long been part of the Senate’s basic fabric, providing the chamber’s minority leverage to extend debate and force the majority to compromise.
But in the past decade or so, each side, when in the majority, has accused the minority of misusing the filibuster to produce gridlock, not change.
Reid is moving toward abolishing the filibuster only on executive-branch nominees, not on judicial nominees or legislation.
Democrats charge that Republicans have blocked a number of top nominees, not because they are unqualified, but because Republicans oppose the agencies that they would head.
Senate rules state that 67 votes are needed to change its rules. But Democrats, who hold the Senate, 54-46, could do it with just 51 by essentially rewriting the rule book with a procedural power plan known as “the nuclear option.”
Once Democrats switched the threshold on rule changes, they would then reduce to 51 from 60 the number of votes needed to end filibusters on executive-branch nominees.
“The reason they call this the ‘nuclear option’ because it is breaking the rules of the Senate to change the rules of the Senate,” McConnell said in a separate appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
With Senate Democrats and Republicans set to meet privately on Monday to discuss their difference, McConnell urged calm.
“We need to start talking to each other rather than at each other,” said McConnell, who last week said Reid would go down as “the worst Senate leader ever” if he invoked “the nuclear option.”
In 2005, the then-Senate Republican majority threatened “the nuclear option” in response to Democrats blocking a number of Republican President George W. Bush conservative nominees.
At the time, Reid spoke against “the nuclear option,” saying it would undermine the Senate, while McConnell argued for it, saying change was needed.
The threat was averted when a bipartisan deal was reached only to filibuster judges in “extraordinary circumstances.”
“I‘m glad we didn’t do it,” McConnell said of the 2005 showdown. “We went to the brink and we pulled back because cooler heads prevailed .... That is what I hope happens here.”
Reporting by Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Cynthia Osterman