Updated 12:35 p.m. | Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid strongly justified his threat to use the nuclear option to end some filibusters on Thursday morning, but stopped short of outlining his plans ahead of an afternoon meeting with Democratic senators.
The Nevada Democrat is due to brief his conference at a lunch meeting later today about his intentions, which seem to focus on eliminating the ability of senators to filibuster nominees to executive branch positions. That move stops well short of what some in his conference prefer, but action by Reid to change Senate procedures with a simple majority using a "nuclear option" could still have wide-reaching implications.
A number of Senate Republicans joined Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky in a feisty floor debate that previewed the level discord expected in the coming week.
In response to a query from Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., Reid explained that he planned to file motions to invoke cloture (thus blocking any filibusters) on a number of nominations today. That would set up votes next week.
"An agreement is a two-way street," Reid said, referencing a January colloquy between himself and McConnell.
"This obstruction has continued at every level and through creative new methods. Even before President Obama's nominations reached the Senate floor, Senate Republicans bogged them down with unreasonable demands, terribly time-consuming, and they're designed to be, if not attainable, really hard and difficult," Reid said.
Reid also argued there is ample precedent in the Senate for changing the rules with a simple majority, rather than using a process that would likely subject any rules change to a two-thirds supermajority. At times, the two leaders veered pretty far from senatorial courtesy.
McConnell said in response that most nominees currently on the executive calendar would have the votes for confirmation, citing as exceptions three nominees with disputed recess appointments.
“What this whole so-called crisis boils down to — what it all comes down to — are three nominees that the president unlawfully appointed, as confirmed by the courts. And one of those nominees had been held up by inaction over at the White House related to structural reforms that the administration — and even the nominee himself — now say they are willing to work with us on," McConnell said.
In that statement, McConnell signaled that it appeared the White House may agree to changes to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The nominee to head that agency, Richard Cordray, has faced overwhelming GOP opposition until changes are made in the bureau's funding structure. Reid expressed the view that such changes are unwise.
"Here's the tweak in the law they want. Dodd-Frank knew we would have trouble with the appropriations process because Republicans now don't let us do much appropriating at all. So the wisdom of the people that drafted Dodd-Frank, they said we're going to make sure the position Cordray is talking about always has the resources to do what they want to do. They did something unique and said the money will come from the federal reserve," Reid said. "They said we want to switch that and give it to the appropriations committee. They won't let us do appropriations bills. So that's like giving us nothing."
The Reid-McConnell colloquy, which was printed in the Congressional Record, provided for an agreement to reach unanimous consent agreements to move nominations in a timely fashion, without filibusters.
Reid said that under the arrangement, nominees would only be subject to blockades under extraordinary circumstances. Things haven't worked as Democrats intended.
McConnell has given almost daily floor speeches warning Reid and other Democrats against moves to change the debate rules through a method that falls outside of the usual rules. As Reid noted Thursday, he's generally declined to reply on the floor.
McConnell was quick to respond to Reid's comments, even charging the majority leader with misquoting him. Reid later explained that the term "extraordinary circumstances" was in this case attributable to Reid, but that McConnell had agreed to it as part of the written colloquy.
In the view of Democrats, the issues with nominations extend far beyond the most well-documented disagreements over the CFPB and the National Labor Relations Board. Reid said, for instance, that Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew's pending nomination to an International Monetary Fund post has been stalled.