WASHINGTON (AP) — Senators braced for a possible showdown over filibusters Tuesday, as Democratic leaders rejected a Republican offer to confirm seven contested White House nominees without promising a future peace accord on the matter.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell privately offered to clear the way for President Barack Obama's choices to head agencies dealing with labor and consumer finance, officials in both parties said. But Democratic leaders rejected the deal because McConnell would not promise to drop the use of filibusters to block future executive nominees.
The Senate was scheduled to hold several test votes on the matter around midday. Meanwhile, negotiations continued between top Democrats and a rump group of Republicans, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
A rare, three-hour private meeting of nearly all 100 senators Monday night failed to resolve the impasse.
If neither side retreats, there could be big ramifications for politics and policymaking for years to come.
Standing alone, the rules change that Democratic leader Harry Reid proposes is limited. It would end the ability of 41 senators, in the 100-person chamber, to block action on White House nominations other than judges. The out-of-power party still could use filibuster threats to block legislation and judicial nominees, who seek lifetime appointments.
But critics say Reid's plan would be likely to prompt Republicans to retaliate by doing even more to reduce the minority party's rights if the GOP regains control of the Senate. That could happen as early 18 months from now, after the 2014 elections.
"It's a decision that, if they actually go through with it, they will live to regret," McConnell has said.
Unlike the 435-member House, the Senate has a long and bumpy tradition of granting rights to minority-party members. The most powerful tool is the filibuster, which can kill a measure by using endless debate to prevent a yes-or-no vote.
The mere promise of a filibuster can block Senate action on almost anything unless 60 of the 100 senators vote to overcome it. Filibuster-proof majorities are rare, and Republicans now hold 46 Senate seats.
Both parties have accelerated their use of the filibuster threat in recent times. Since Obama took office in January 2009, Republicans have threatened filibusters repeatedly, infuriating Democrats.
Reid said Lyndon B. Johnson faced one filibuster during his six years as Senate majority leader. In the same length of time as majority leader, Reid said he has faced 413 threatened filibusters. The tactic, he said, blocks action on routine matters that Congress once handled fairly easily.
"The power of an extreme minority now threatens our integrity of this institution," Reid, of Nevada, said in a speech Monday. "My efforts are directed to save the Senate from becoming obsolete."
He called his proposal a "minor change, no big deal." But Republicans, led by McConnell, object bitterly.
Democrats acknowledged that Republicans will turn any such rules change to their advantage if they regain the Senate majority, which the two parties have often swapped in recent decades.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters the Senate "needs to confirm this president's nominees in a timely and efficient manner." That will be true, he said, "for the next president, and the next president after that. This has become ridiculous."
Senate Republicans particularly object to two union-backed members of the National Labor Relations Board, Richard Griffin and Sharon Block. Obama appointed them when he said the Senate was in recess.
An appeals court said Obama exceeded his authority. The board's actions since the two members took their seats are in legal limbo. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has vowed to cause a new ruckus if the two are replaced.
Republicans also have opposed Obama's pick to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, created in a Wall Street oversight revision that Republicans opposed. Obama nominated former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray more than two years ago.
Many Republican senators say they will not confirm anyone to the consumer post unless the bureau's leadership structure is changed.
In a Monday afternoon meeting with Reid, McConnell agreed to clear the way to resolve all seven nominations in question, presumably with new nominees to replace Block and Griffin, multiple sources said. But Reid rejected the idea because McConnell would not agree to refrain from future filibusters of executive nominees.
Senators said it was possible that at least six Republicans, including McCain, will abandon McConnell and vote to end filibusters on Cordray and others. That would not resolve questions of the future use of filibusters to block presidential executive nominees.
Asked Monday if Obama worries that a filibuster rule change would make the Senate even more dysfunctional, Carney said, "Well, it boggles the mind how they would achieve that."
This notion that things can't get much worse in the often stalemated Senate seems to have convinced numerous senators and interest groups in recent months that there is little risk in changing traditions to end at least some of the logjams..
Republicans seem to have dropped efforts to block Gina McCarthy to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Reid, however, accused them of unwarranted delaying tactics, which included 1,100 written questions to the nominee.