Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Thursday said he will hold votes next week on a number of President Barack Obama's embattled executive-branch nominees, setting up a showdown with Republicans over rules used to block confirmations.
Unless Republicans allow them all to be confirmed, Reid, a Nevada Democrat, may move to strip Republicans of their ability to block nominees with procedural hurdles known as filibusters, Democratic aides said.
The Senate requires 67 votes to change its rules, including those regarding filibusters. But under a procedural power play known as "the nuclear option," Reid could do it with just 51. His Democrats control the Senate, 54-46.
Their aim would be to reduce to a simple majority from 60 the votes needed to end filibusters on executive branch nominees. A 60-vote threshold would remain for judicial nominees as well as legislation, aides said.
In a heated exchange on the Senate floor, Reid accused Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of breaking an agreement reached in January to make the Senate confirmation process more efficient and less hostile.
McConnell, of Kentucky, angrily denied it and accused Reid of concocting "a phony crisis" as an excuse to break his own promise on Senate's rules.
"If this isn't a power grab, I don't know what a power grab looks like," McConnell roared.
Reid said he would schedule votes next week on as many as a dozen or so nominations, aides said.
They are expected to include Gina McCarthy to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Thomas Perez to be U.S. labor secretary, and Richard Cordray to be director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, along with at least three members of the National Labor Relations Board.
NO MOOD TO COMPROMISE
A senior aide said Reid is in no mood to compromise, and would not drop his threat to eliminate filibusters on nominations if Republicans agree to confirm just some of them.
"We want all of them," the aide said.
Reid charged that Republicans have blocked nominees not because they are unqualified, but because Republicans often do not like the pro-consumer, pro-labor and pro-environment agencies that they have been named to head.
But McConnell countered that scores of Obama's nominees have been confirmed this year, including a number of his Cabinet secretaries, many with broad bipartisan support. He accused Reid of trying to pick a fight to fire up the Democrats' liberal base, particularly organized labor.
"The nuclear option" has been threatened over the years by both parties to abolish or curb the filibuster. But it not been used, largely because the Senate majority knows it will eventually be back in the minority and would want the filibuster in its arsenal.
"And I guarantee you, it is a decision that, if they actually go through with it, they will live to regret," McConnell warned Democrats.
Although the rule change being considered by Reid would only affect executive branch nominees, Republicans said it would set a precedent that could be used to end filibusters on judicial nominations and legislation.
Other Republicans urged calm and suggested that the full Senate meet next week to try to resolve differences.
Reid appeared open to the possibility, but made it clear he wanted Obama's nominees to get confirmation votes, complaining his Cabinet nominees "have faced unprecedented obstruction and significant delays in assuming their positions."
The most recent to face a filibuster, Obama's defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel, was later confirmed. Republicans said they initially blocked Hagel because they needed more time to question their former Republican Senate colleague turned Obama ally.
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