The Senate is nearing showdown votes today over seven presidential nominees even as leaders seek a last-minute deal to avoid a change to the chamber’s filibuster rules threatened by Democrats.
Senators reported no agreement after Democrats and Republicans met privately for three and a half hours last night in Washington on the nominations that include Richard Cordray to run the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and nominees for the National Labor Relations Board. Republicans have pledged to block them.
“There were many options discussed, there was no agreement reached,” Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat, told reporters afterward. “I think there’s a genuine effort under way to try to find a way through this, but we don’t have that solution at hand.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said that without a deal, votes will begin today on the nominees, starting with Cordray. Reid is threatening to employ the so-called “nuclear option,” a unilateral rule change to prevent the minority from blocking the president’s executive appointments. He said at least 51 Democrats back such a move.
The partisan rancor over seven of President Barack Obama’s nominees could prompt gridlock in the Senate and at regulatory agencies. A rule change by Democrats may make it difficult in coming months for lawmakers to agree on raising the U.S. debt ceiling and enacting a new immigration law.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s spokesman, Don Stewart, said in an e-mailed statement that a “clear bipartisan majority in the meeting believed the leaders ought to find a solution. And discussions will continue.”
Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate panel that considered the NLRB nominees as well as Obama’s choice of Thomas Perez to run the Labor Department, said he’s not sure there will be a deal.
“I don’t feel very good about it,” Alexander said. “There are too many senators who don’t understand the precedent of the majority changing the rules anytime it wants.”
Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California told reporters, “I think it’s pretty much up to the leaders to try.” Asked whether she thought Republicans had come to understand Democrats’ concern about how Obama’s nominees have been treated, she said, “I’m not sure.”
Republicans oppose the nominations of Cordray, Perez for labor secretary and Gina McCarthy to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. The others scheduled for votes are Fred Hochberg, renominated to lead the U.S. Export-Import Bank, and three nominees to the National Labor Relations Board: Mark Gaston Pearce, Sharon Block and Richard Griffin.
It takes 60 votes to end the minority-party delaying tactic known as a filibuster, and Democrats control 54 of 100 Senate seats. A change in the rules for ending filibusters wouldn’t be a first. In 1975, senators reduced the number of votes needed to end the obstruction tactic from 67 to the current 60.
While Reid and McConnell have made last-minute deals to avert past disputes, this time may be different. Reid accused McConnell on July 11 of breaking his word to allow timely votes on nominees. McConnell retorted that if Reid proceeded with the so-called nuclear option to change filibuster rules he would “be remembered as the worst leader of the Senate ever.”
Several Republicans said they made suggestions for resolving the conflict. Senator Rob Portman of Ohio said he spoke with Democratic leaders and proposed strengthening oversight of the consumer bureau in exchange for allowing a vote on Cordray, something Durbin said he would oppose.
“I know that’s his solution; I don’t like it,” Durbin said.
Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said that also under discussion was substituting two new NLRB nominees to replace the two who were installed by the president as recess appointees.
“We’re going to continue to negotiate and continue to talk, and then, I’m afraid, the majority leader may schedule a vote, unless we reach some agreement,” said McCain.
Rule changes aren’t nearly as common as threats to alter them. In 2005, after Democrats then in the minority blocked 10 of President George W. Bush’s appellate court nominees, Republicans said they would push through a rule change to prohibit the use of filibusters on judicial nominations.
Such a change was dubbed the “nuclear option” because the majority party proposed to do it with a simple majority of 51 votes. Democrats eventually agreed to allow confirmation of three nominees, and Republicans dropped the rule-change threat.
Obama first nominated Cordray to lead the consumer financial bureau in 2011. Republicans blocked his confirmation that December because they opposed the structure of the new bureau, created by the Dodd-Frank financial-market overhaul.
Obama installed Cordray in January 2012 during what he said was a Senate recess. That angered Republicans who said the chamber wasn’t officially in recess and Obama couldn’t appoint him without Senate confirmation. The president sent Cordray’s nomination to the Senate again on Jan. 24 of this year.
Senate Republicans say they oppose Cordray’s confirmation unless the administration changes the bureau’s operations to provide more oversight.
Obama named the NLRB’s Griffin and Block to the labor relations board on the same day as Cordray’s appointment. The NLRB appointments were ruled invalid on Jan. 25 by a federal appeals court in Washington. The administration appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will consider the case in its 2013-2014 term.
The NLRB will lose its quorum and be unable to function unless at least one nominee is confirmed before Pearce’s term expires Aug. 27. As of May, about 120 challenges in labor board cases were pending in courts on claims that Obama’s appointments were constitutionally invalid, said labor board spokesman Gregory King.