Senate Heads Toward Showdown On Obama Nominees

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Thursday scheduled votes next week on seven of President Obama’s executive-branch nominees, setting up a showdown with Republicans over rules used to block confirmations.

Unless Republicans allow all seven to be confirmed, Reid told reporters, “I’m going to do what I need to do,” adding, “This place doesn’t work” under the current rules.

Speaking to reporters following a closed-door session he held with fellow Democrats, Reid was thought to be referring to a possible move to strip Republicans of their ability to block executive branch nominees with a procedure known as the filibuster.

The seven nominees are: Gina McCarthy to head the EPA; Thomas Perez to be U.S. labor secretary; Richard Cordray for director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Fred Hochberg to serve a second term as head of the U.S. Export-Import Bank, along with votes on three members of the National Labor Relations Board.

The Senate requires 67 votes to change its rules, including those regarding filibusters. But under a procedural power play known as “the nuclear option,” Reid could do it with just 51. His Democrats control the Senate, 54-46. Their aim would be to reduce to a simple majority from 60 votes now needed to end filibusters on executive branch nominees. A 60-vote threshold would remain for judicial nominees as well as legislation, aides said.

While indicating he was prepared to force the rules change, Reid still held out hope the situation could be defused.

“We’ll have to wait to see what the weekend brings,” Reid said of the possibility that Republicans would allow the seven nominees to be confirmed. If all seven were confirmed next week, Reid said there would be no need to pursue the nuclear option.

Reid told reporters he had the 51 Democratic votes needed to change the rules if the nominees are not confirmed next week.

In response, Republican leader Mitch McConnell said: “These are dark days in the history of the Senate.”

In a heated exchange on the Senate floor earlier Thursday, Reid accused McConnell of breaking an agreement reached in January to make the Senate confirmation process more efficient and less hostile.

McConnell angrily denied it and accused Reid of concocting “a phony crisis” as an excuse to break his own promise on Senate’s rules.

“If this isn’t a power grab, I don’t know what a power grab looks like,” McConnell roared.