WASHINGTON - Republicans and Democrats held more than three hours of extraordinary closed-door talks last night over the fate of several of President Barack Obama's stalled nominations without a resolution.
WASHINGTON — Republicans and Democrats held more than three hours of extraordinary closed-door talks last night over the fate of several of President Barack Obama’s stalled nominations without a resolution.
Instead, senators emerging from the meeting said the Republican and Democratic leadership would continue the discussions late into the night.
The Senate is scheduled to begin taking a series of votes this morning on seven appointees whom Republicans have blocked. Majority Leader Harry Reid had given no indication he planned to change that.
The showdown threatens to unravel what little bipartisanship remains in the Senate.
Nearly all 100 senators attended the rare private meeting in the Capitol’s Old Senate Chamber, just down the hall from where they normally debate the issues of the day with the public and news media in attendance.
Reid insisted in advance that Republicans permit yes-or-no confirmation votes on all seven of the nominees at issue. If they won’t, he declared, Democrats will change the Senate’s rules to strip them of their ability to delay.
Republicans made no formal response, although Reid and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell met privately during the day. Officials said several possible compromises had been floated in various meetings and conversations.
“Maybe there’s a little bit of a thaw,” Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said as he entered the meeting. “The leaders are continuing to talk; the White House is involved in discussions with some of our members. Nothing has resulted from that, but the fact that people are still talking is a positive."
Officials in both parties said there had been discussions about Republicans stepping aside to permit confirmation of nearly all of the seven, with Obama agreeing to submit a replacement for at least one of two stalled appointees to the National Labor Relations Board.
In a morning speech at the Center for American Progress, Reid said there is no room for a middle ground allowing votes on some but not all of the seven.
Of the possible rules change, he said: “Minor change, no big deal.” Reid said: “My efforts are directed at saving the Senate from becoming obsolete.”
Republicans counter that a rules change made unilaterally by one party would profoundly alter the Senate, where both parties pay tribute to maintaining minority rights that are far stronger than in the House. Rules changes generally are made with at least a two-thirds vote of the Senate, ensuring bipartisan support.
“I guarantee you, it’s a decision that, if they actually go through with it, they will live to regret,” McConnell said last week of the Democrats.
At the core of the dispute is the minority party’s power to stall or block a yes-or-no vote on nearly anything: legislation, judicial appointments and even relatively routine nominations for administration positions. Although only a majority vote is required to confirm presidential appointees, it takes 60 votes to end delaying tactics and proceed to a yes-or-no vote.
The Democrats are threatening to change the rules only as they apply to nominations for administration positions, not judges or legislation, although Reid appeared to hedge when asked what other changes he might want to make the Senate more effective. “Nothing right now,” he said.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., noting that he was elected to the Senate only last year, said that despite Reid’s contention, a change is potentially momentous. He said the need for confirmation means appointees must hear the concerns of individual senators in a way that is not the case with House members. He said it’s highly likely that once the rules were altered, one party would expand the change to include “judicial nominees that have a lifetime tenure” or even legislation.
In its purest form, a Senate delay can mean a classic filibuster — such as when Sen. Strom Thurmond stood at his desk in 1957 and spoke for a few minutes longer than 24 straight hours in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent action on civil-rights legislation.
In the past half-century, the filibuster has evolved, as have other means of stalling votes without requiring an around-the-clock speech that defies human endurance.
In the current case of Gina McCarthy, who was named to head the Environmental Protection Agency in March, Reid said during the day that Republicans had submitted more than 1,100 questions for her to answer about her plans at an agency they frequently criticize.
In recent days, Republicans have signaled that they no longer will attempt to block votes on McCarthy, Labor Secretary-designate Tom Perez, and Fred Hochberg to head the Export-Import Bank.
Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah said last night that fellow Republicans were now willing to stand aside for confirmation of Richard Cordray, a former Ohio attorney general named in 2011 to head the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau.
However, Hatch said Obama should find replacements for Richard Griffin and Sharon Block, appointed the same year to the National Labor Relations Board. Also stalled is Mark Pearce, nominated this year to a new term as head of the NLRB.