WASHINGTON -- The Senate made an 11th-hour bid Monday night to avert an unprecedented maneuver to change the chamber's rules governing presidential appointees, with nearly all 100 senators huddled in a rare bipartisan, closed-door caucus.
Before that critical meeting, Republicans, Democrats and White House officials engaged in a flurry of talks over President Barack Obama's selections to head low-profile but influential agencies, including a meeting Monday afternoon between the key protagonists in this melodrama, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
All sides reported some progress, but there remained some critical distance on whether Mr. Obama's current picks to run the National Labor Relations Board would be confirmed, or whether new selections would be sent to the Senate for confirmation.
If no deal is reached, Mr. Reid is expected to have the votes today that would set up the historic clash over changing the Senate rules on a raw party-line vote, so that Cabinet- and agency-level nominees could be confirmed without having to overcome a filibuster. Republicans have threatened to retaliate on a host of other legislative matters, creating the possibility that the already-toxic tensions in the chamber would hit new heights because of the move that some call "the nuclear option."
Invoking the spirit of early 19th-century-deals that delayed the onset of the Civil War, senators met in the Old Senate Chamber, which until 1859 served as the meeting room for such key pacts as the Missouri Compromise of 1820.
After a week of shuttle diplomacy among Mr. Reid and Mr. McConnell and the White House, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said time was running out to avert the conflagration. "It's going to go one way or the other," he told reporters Monday afternoon.
Senators shortly after 6 p.m. began the meeting in which each side was allowed to bring one aide who is a parliamentary expert.
Earlier Monday, Mr. Reid remained defiant, saying Republicans can avoid a showdown by backing off threats to block seven nominees slated for consideration. "I love the Senate, but right now, the Senate is broken and needs to be fixed. It's time for course correction," he said at the Center for American Progress, a think tank closely aligned with the Obama administration and congressional Democrats.
"The Senate needs to confirm this president's nominees in a timely and efficient manner," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Monday. "That is true and will be true for the next president and the next president after that. This has become ridiculous."
The dispute centers on GOP treatment of Mr. Obama's nominees, particularly choices for the NLRB, the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or CFPB, and a couple of Cabinet posts.
Republicans, holding 45 seats and enough to filibuster any nominee, have been refusing to confirm the NLRB and CFPB selections because they were given interim appointments by Mr. Obama that have since been ruled unconstitutional by federal appellate courts. The case is heading for a Supreme Court ruling, likely next year.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, told reporters Monday that he had made "good progress" in talks with administration officials about trying to get some CFPB reforms in order to secure enough votes to confirm Richard Cordray, the interim director from Mr. Portman's home state, as the permanent director.
If senators fail to reach a new agreement, Mr. Reid plans to hold a key test vote this morning on Mr. Cordray's nomination, needing 60 votes to move to a debate and final confirmation vote. Up after that would come the NLRB nominees, followed by less controversial selections to lead the U.S. Export-Import Bank, the EPA and the Labor Department. "These are good people," Mr. Reid said early Monday.
Obscure to even most senators themselves, Mr. Reid's party-line method for the rules change would overrule the chamber's long-held standards that required a supermajority of 67 senators to sign off on such a big step.
"There's a reason why it's called nuclear," said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., declaring a compromise "far, far less consequential" to the Senate than setting such a big precedent. Republicans have warned that if they win back the majority in the 2014 midterm elections, they would use the party-line vote to simply abolish the filibuster on all legislation and then approve by a bare majority vote anti-union legislation and the repeal of Mr. Obama's health care law.
Mr. Reid hinted early Monday that the rules could change at a later date to perhaps allow legislation to pass with a simple majority vote. "Nothing right now. But remember, the Senate is an evolving body," he said.nation