The brinkmanship and personal recrimination pointed to a Senate in crisis.
After weeks of deadlocked partisan talks over President Barack Obama’s choice to run a consumer financial protection bureau born of the worst recession since the Great Depression, Democratic leaders threatened to strip Republicans of their power to block Richard Cordray’s confirmation.
The two parties retreated July 15 behind closed doors in the Capitol’s Old Senate Chamber, an enclave used in modern times for planning President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial.
“Phone call after phone call after phone call” had failed to settle the dispute, said Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and the frayed outlines of a deal reached two days earlier had to be “resurrected” in that late-night session.
In the end, Democrats thanked Republicans for a solution that saved both Cordray’s confirmation and the decorum of the Senate.
“John McCain is why we are where we are,” Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said on the Senate floor. “No one was able to break through but him.”
Senators credited their three-hour session with restoring a sense of collegiality and mutual understanding.
“What happened last night was that having the collective body there all intensely listening to each other -- and you could hear a pin drop -- it enabled people to understand the differences in viewpoints,” said Senator Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat.
“Whenever we come to the floor normally we are speaking to a void, we are speaking to a camera, we are speaking to our constituents but there’s no one there to listen to us among our colleagues,” Merkley said.
“Monday night was a magical night,” Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, said today on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program. “So much history was coming out as members spoke, and you could tell they genuinely wanted to make it work.”
In the end, the Senate voted 66-34 to confirm Cordray for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau -- with Republicans casting all the opposing votes as McCain and 11 others supported the deal with the Democrats.
The package requires Obama to withdraw two disputed nominees for the National Labor Relations Board and replace them. The White House quickly accepted, offering Nancy Schiffer, a former top lawyer for the AFL-CIO, and Kent Hirozawa, counsel to NLRB Chairman Mark Gaston Pearce.
“The caucus was the turning point,” New York Senator Charles Schumer, the chamber’s third-ranking Democrat, told reporters yesterday. “I think both leaders saw and everybody saw that we were so close it would be a shame to have an Armageddon if you will when we were so close.”
Senate Democratic leaders dropped their threat to make a unilateral rule change to prevent the Republican minority from blocking the president’s executive appointments. Such a move by Democrats could have halted legislative movement in the chamber.
“Crisis has been averted,” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said yesterday, adding that he expects the new NLRB nominees to be voted on before lawmakers’ August recess.
For weeks, the Kentucky Republican had given floor speeches accusing Reid of breaking his word not to change the rules this session. Reid finally struck back on the floor July 11 in what became a brutal day of accusations and a threat to follow through on the maneuver unless nominations started moving.
The effort to defuse tensions was already taking place behind the scenes. Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, said he and three other Republican senators -- McCain, John Hoeven of North Dakota and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee -- informally talked for weeks with Democrats, particularly Schumer and other leaders, about potential resolutions.
Though the outlines of the plan were reached July 13, the proposal “hit a speed bump” and had to be “resurrected,” McCain said, without giving details.
The deal is similar to an offer McConnell made to Reid last week in which he suggested Cordray could be confirmed if structural changes were made to the consumer agency. He also called for the White House to withdraw Block’s and Griffin’s nominations.
Dozens of senators spoke at the meeting, according to lawmakers who attended. Alexander led off, criticizing Democrats’ claims that Republicans were tying Obama’s hands with confirmation delays as the Senate ushered through judicial appointments and other members of Obama’s second-term cabinet.
Corker said he outlined ways that he has been able to forge compromises, even in the minority, because of the 60-vote requirement. He pointed to his pivotal role in helping craft a $38 billion border-security proposal that was the linchpin in last month’s passage of a comprehensive immigration bill.
Of about 20 Democrats who spoke, leaders including Schumer and Richard Durbin of Illinois talked bluntly about their frustration with months-long delays on nominees. Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, made clear that he would vote against the so-called nuclear option of a rule change.
Levin, who is retiring at the end of next year, told reporters yesterday that he was prepared to vote against Reid’s plan to change the rules.
“If the majority can change the rules at any time, like they do in the House, then you don’t have any rules,” he said.
Senator Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, said holding the meeting in the Old Senate Chamber created an environment that helped ease tensions -- as senators were playing to no audience besides each other.
“You have to consider this is where some of the great debates of our time took place, back when the Senate was in a golden age with Clay, Calhoun and Webster. And you can see Thomas Jefferson sitting there, presiding over it as vice president,” Flake said. “It’s tough not to be moved.”
It takes 60 votes to end the 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.
McCain and others said the low approval rating for Congress -- just 17 percent in the last Gallup poll -- put pressure on senators to reach a deal to allow the confirmations to go forward. The June 1-4 poll of 2,048 adults had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.
“There seems to be tiny hint of a little bit of bipartisanship in the air in Washington,” said Anita McBride, a former assistant to ex-President George H.W. Bush and now the executive-in-residence at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. “Americans are pretty wary of the two sides not talking to each other. Maybe the winds are blowing slightly differently.”
Republicans, including Corker and Susan Collins of Maine, said it’s unlikely that lawmakers will clash over nominations and the nuclear option again during this session of Congress.
“How many times do we need to go through this?” Collins said with a laugh.