'Nuclear' Thursday in the Senate? (Updated)

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Updated 11:10 a.m. | Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., opened a tense Thursday on the Senate floor, with Democrats appearing poised to change the way the Senate does business.

"The change we propose today would ensure executive and judicial nominations an up-or-down vote on confirmation: yes or no," Reid said on the Senate floor, announcing he was proposing a precedent change that would provide simple majority cloture.

Reid started the procedural votes needed to get to the precedent-setting moment Thursday morning, beginning with a move to reconsider the failed cloture vote on the nomination of Patricia Ann Millett to a D.C. appeals court seat.

Senior Senate Democratic aides have said throughout the week that action was possible before Thanksgiving to set a new Senate precedent ending the need for 60 votes to limit debate on the vast majority of presidential nominations. What's being floated would leave out only the Supreme Court, likely in a nod to concerns of liberal groups like those advocating for abortion rights.

"The American people believe Congress is broken. The American people believe the Senate is broken, and I believe the American people are right," Reid said. "It's time to change the Senate before this institution becomes obsolete."

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said that the distinction between circuit court and Supreme Court nominees envisioned by Democrats would not hold water. He called it a "gerrymandered vision" of reality, suggesting that a future GOP-led Senate would go further if Democrats make the changes proposed by Reid.

"Our colleagues, evidently, would rather live for the moment," McConnell said, calling on more senior Democrats to oppose the move.

Democrats have telegraphed the effort, which would involve the "nuclear option," since it would effectively change the rules with a simple majority of Democratic senators.

One aide said the scenario would involve a ruling from the chair providing for a simple majority to invoke cloture on nominees, potentially preserving existing rules governing debate time after breaking filibusters.

Reid told reporters Tuesday that "we need to do something" to advance President Barack Obama's nominations.

The move, which could come as early as Thursday, is the anticipated response to a decision by Senate Republicans to oppose limiting debate on each of the nominees put forth by Obama to fill vacancies on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

While the Senate's been on the brink of the nuclear option numerous times since Democrats last took the majority, the previous debates were defused by narrow agreements between Democrats and Republicans.

Any vote on changing the precedent would be close, but if Reid has the majority vote required lined up, every indication is that he will move forward.

During the previous debate over the rules that ended with a bipartisan deal, Reid declined to entertain the idea that the D.C. Circuit vacancies would lead senators right back to the precipice of changing rules and precedents.

A few Democrats have not publicly committed, but the momentum is clearly on the side of the relatively new senators who have pushed for changes.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., told a Democratic dinner earlier this year that "we will fill up the D.C. Circuit, one way or the other."

Senate Republican leadership is calling the standoff over federal appeals court judges a distraction from the troubled rollout of the health care law, though it seems some Republicans have reached the point where they think Reid should either move forward with the nuclear option or give up on it.

"I can only speak for myself: I'm tired of threats," said Sen. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., "If he's going to do it, then go ahead and do it. If he's not going to do it, then quit talking about it. I think that this shouldn't be a surprise to anybody."

"We're not interested in having a gun put to our head any longer," McConnell said Thursday, echoing Burr's sentiment.

"This rules change charade has gone from being a biennial threat, to an annual threat, to now a quarterly threat. It’s become a threat every time Senate Democrats don't get their way," McConnell said. "And their repeated promises at the end of every crisis, that they won’t threaten it again, just don’t seem to be worth any more than their promises on Obamacare."

Burr said he did not think Democrats would win a public opinion battle over the Senate's rules in relation to appeals court judges.

"It's a pretty weak argument, but if they want to take that one publicly, if that's something to change 200 years worth of history, I don't think the American people are going to side with them," Burr said Wednesday.