Majority Leader Reid Moves Senate Closer To 'Nuclear Option'

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is preparing to push through contentious changes to filibuster rules, if Republicans do not agree to approve seven presidential nominations on Tuesday. Reid convened a closed meeting of all 100 senators Monday night to hash out the arguments ahead of the deadline.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

History could be made today in the United States Senate.

MONTAGNE: That chamber could be on the verge of a very long overdue correction of its abused filibuster rules. That's how Democrats see it.

GREENE: Or on the verge of a rash power grab that could ultimately destroy the institution. That is the Republican point of view.

MONTAGNE: If Republicans won't allow votes on seven of President Obama's stalled nominees today, Democrats say they may resort to what's being called the nuclear option.

GREENE: Democrats would use 51 votes rather than the traditional 67 to change the rules of the Senate so that executive branch nominees can no longer be filibustered.

NPR's David Welna has our report.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid seemed determined to go through with the so-called nuclear option when he addressed the crowd of reporters yesterday at the liberal Center for American Progress.

SENATOR HARRY REID: I love the Senate but right now the Senate is broken and needs to be fixed.

WELNA: Reid said Senate Democrats were prepared to change the rules by a simple majority vote so that nominees to the executive branch could no longer be blocked by a filibuster.

REID: This does not affect lifetime appointments. It doesn't affect substantive legislation. It allows a president to have his team, this president and those in the future. And that's the way it should be.

WELNA: Making such a move, Reid said, would be no big deal. He called a minor change, one that's in step with the Constitution. But later on the Senate floor, Arizona Republican Jeff Flake said Reid was wrong.

SENATOR JEFF FLAKE: It is a big deal. It has a potential to change this institution in ways that are both hazardous and unforeseen.

WELNA: With votes set for this morning on seven stalled nominees, and with Reid warning that the nuclear option could be triggered if Republicans blocked many of them - all 100 senators attended a closed-door session last night in the old Senate chamber, aimed at heading off a showdown today. That last ditch effort went on for more than three hours. And when it was over, Utah Republican Orrin Hatch praised the effort.

SENATOR ORRIN HATCH: People were very cordial, very respectful of each other. I was impressed.

WELNA: But no deal was agreed on. This was all Democratic leader Reid would say after the meeting.

REID: The night is late. We've been - no breaks. We've been going steady and we've had a very good conversation. The conversation is going to continue tonight. The votes are scheduled at 10:00 in the morning.

WELNA: It's not clear whether those votes will actually be held this morning. John Cornyn, the Senate's number two Republican, said Democrats appeared to be having second thoughts.

SENATOR JOHN CORNYN: I was pretty pessimistic this weekend. It looked like Senator Reid had the votes, that he was committed to the nuclear option. But I think there's enough recognition on both sides that the shoe could be on the other foot rather quickly and the people in the majority today will be in the minority tomorrow and vice versa.

WELNA: The dispute centers mainly on three of the seven stalled nominees. President Obama recess-appointed them a year and a half ago, and a federal appeals court has ruled those appointments unconstitutional. The case is being taken up by the Supreme Court in its next term.

South Dakota Republican John Thune doubts senators from his party would allow the re-nominations of those three to move forward today.

SENATOR JOHN THUNE: I think it's going to be a really heavy lift for Republicans, simply because our view is that they were illegally, unconstitutionally appointed. And, you know, that's an awfully difficult thing to turn the other way on.

WELNA: Some Republicans say they could accept new nominees to replace the two people who were recessed-appointed to the National Labor Relations Board. But Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin says he'd fight such a deal.

SENATOR TOM HARKIN: Because I think it will be grossly unfair to throw them out simply to make a deal, when they've done nothing wrong, they're perfectly legal, they're doing everything right. And until the Supreme Court decides it, they have every right to be where they are and to take this position on the NLRB.

WELNA: The same goes, Harkin said, for Richard Cordray, who's being re-nominated to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. His is the first nomination up for a vote today. And unless there's a deal, that vote could trigger momentous changes in the Senate.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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