Declaring that the country has a presidential nominations crisis, the Senate's top Democrat vowed Sunday to press ahead with showdown votes this week that could end up rewriting Senate rules to power through President Obama's team but also threatens to end the comity that is essential to the chamber's operations.
Sen. Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said he wants to tweak the rules to stop Republicans from being able to filibuster when Mr. Obama nominates someone to fill an executive branch or independent agency job — though Mr. Reid would continue to allow filibusters for judges.
"The changes we're making are very, very minimal. What we're doing is saying, 'Look, American people, shouldn't President Obama have somebody working for him that he wants?'" Mr. Reid said on NBC's "Meet the Press" program as he defended using the so-called "nuclear option" to change the rules.
Under that scenario, Mr. Reid would use Democrats' majority in the chamber to overturn decades of precedent and establish a new precedent — which amounts to the same as a rules change when it comes to parliamentary procedure — that argues that nonjudicial nominees are not debatable to the same degree as bills.
Mr. Reid's Republican counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said Democrats are itching for a fight when there isn't one to be had.
He said the GOP has confirmed Mr. Obama's picks at a faster rate than President George W. Bush was getting at the same point in his time in office, and said Republicans haven't defeated any of the president's major executive nominees.
"When it comes to nominations, as I've indicated, the president hasn't lost anybody — he hasn't lost anybody," Mr. McConnell said, also appearing on NBC. "Are they saying they don't want us to even debate these nominations?"
In a sign of how tense the fight has become, the two leaders did not appear on the same panel with each other, but spoke sequentially to moderator David Gregory.
Mr. Reid has set up seven potential filibuster votes for Tuesday morning: nominees for the Labor Department secretary, the 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.
The question is whether, if the GOP only filibusters some of those nominees, would Mr. Reid still force a rules change.
He has scheduled the three most controversial votes — for the NLRB and the CFPB — to come first, which means he appears to trying to make Republicans cave.
Mr. McConnell said the GOP would let most of the nominees go through, including ones they strongly object to, such as Thomas Perez, the Labor secretary pick.
But the three main fights over the NLRB and CFPB nominees are trickier. When those three were facing potential Republican blockades early last year, Mr. Obama used his recess appointment powers to name them to their jobs — but he acted at a time when the Senate didn't consider itself in recess.
A federal appeals court already has ruled that Mr. Obama exceeded his bounds with the NLRB nomination and invalidated one of the board's rulings, calling the rest into questions. The Supreme Court last month said it will take the case.
Republicans argue that Mr. Reid is risking major damage to the institution of the Senate in order to rescue the NLRB from its precarious position.
Republicans and Democrats will sit down for a major all-senators meeting Monday morning, in which the GOP hopes it can talk the majority out of pressing ahead.
The filibuster is not actually part of Senate rules. Instead, it's a term that's applied when a single senator or group of senators wants to hold an indefinite debate on an issue.
Some issues and motions are considered nondebatable and cannot be filibustered, such as bringing a budget to the Senate floor. But most of the regular motions senators make are debatable. It takes 60 votes to cut off debate, and when that vote fails, it is considered a filibuster.
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