Senate Democrats laid the groundwork Thursday to trigger the “nuclear option” against minority filibusters, setting up a dramatic Tuesday showdown in which Republicans either will have to accept seven of President Obama’s controversial appointments or watch as Democrats change the rules and end filibusters of executive branch nominees.
The move would fundamentally alter the balance of power between the White House and the Senate and would give the president more latitude to put his team into place. But it also would aggravate a contentious atmosphere in the Senate and dim prospects for bipartisan agreements this year, with spending, debt and immigration fights still simmering.
He changed his mind Thursday after Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, broke his side of an agreement by delaying confirmation of some of the president’s nominees.
“A deal is a deal, a contract is a contract, an arrangement is an arrangement, a bargain is a bargain, as long as each party to such an agreement holds up his end of the bargain,” Mr. Reid said in a morning floor speech.
Republicans warned that they could retaliate easily if they reclaim the majority by ending other filibusters, which would let them push through their own priorities without fear of minority obstruction.
Mr. Reid, for the moment, was only forcing a confrontation on executive branch and independent agencies, not judicial nominations or legislation.
Democrats pioneered partisan filibusters of judicial nominees under President George W. Bush, but both parties have long histories of filibustering each other’s executive branch appointments.
Still, Democrats said Republicans have taken the tactic of talking legislation to the extreme in order to gum up government as part of their anti-Washington agenda.
Each side cites statistics to back up its case. Democrats point to the number of nominees where Mr. Reid has forced votes to end filibusters. Republicans say all of Mr. Obama’s nominees eventually have been approved — including John F. Kerry as secretary of state, who was confirmed in seven days.
Mr. Reid has set up filibuster votes for Tuesday for seven nominees: for Labor Department secretary, Environmental Protection Agency administrator, three members of the National Labor Relations Board, the president of the Export-Import Bank and the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Republicans asked for a bipartisan meeting of all senators to air out the issue and try to reach an accord. Mr. Reid agreed, though he scheduled the meeting for Monday evening. Republicans said that doesn’t leave much time to change minds.
The term “nuclear option” refers to changing the rules by a majority vote, rather than the two-thirds vote the Senate usually requires — a rule that guarantees the minority certain rights that have defined the chamber throughout its history.
If Republicans filibuster the nominees, Mr. Reid likely will ask for a parliamentarian ruling on whether the filibuster is legal. Based on Senate history, the parliamentarian will rule that it is, and Mr. Reid will move to overturn that ruling — which requires a simple majority and sets official precedent.