A Senate divided, even concerning its own rules

Nominees’ plight prompts review

Democratic leader Harry Reid (left) and Republican leader Mitch McConnell
AP Photos
Democratic leader Harry Reid (left) and Republican leader Mitch McConnell once again strongly disagreed during separate TV segments.

WASHINGTON — Proposed changes to Senate rules would either ease the way for President Obama to assemble his second-term team or permanently threaten the body’s deliberative style, the chamber’s top Democratic and Republican lawmakers said Sunday.

Democratic leader Harry Reid and Republican leader Mitch McConnell once again strongly disagreed during separate television segments on the eve of a rare closed-door summit that could reduce the Senate’s reputation as deliberative to the point of inaction.

Reid and McConnell — along with their rank-and-file members — have been trading barbs over just what the proposed changes would be, both for Obama’s current slate of nominees who are awaiting confirmation and for future senators who prize their ability to delay action.


Democrats, who are the majority in the Senate, are pushing to erode the rights of minority Republicans to block confirmation of Obama’s picks for posts on a labor rights board and a consumer protection bureau.

Get This Week in Politics in your inbox:
A weekly recap of the top political stories from The Globe, sent right to your email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Republicans previously stalled confirmation votes for Obama’s pick for labor secretary and chiefs of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Export-Import Bank, but last week GOP lawmakers stepped aside and said they would allow those nominees to move forward.

Reid said the changes were not about the appointment of judges or passing legislation. ‘‘This is allowing the people of America to have a president who can have his team,’’ he said.

McConnell called Democrats’ proposed changes contrary to Senate tradition, which typically requires 60 votes to end debate and move forward on nominations or legislation.

‘‘I hope that we’ll come to our senses and not change the core of the Senate. We’ve never changed the rules of the Senate by breaking the rules of the Senate,’’ McConnell said.


Reid and McConnell spoke during separate interviews Sunday on NBC’s ‘‘Meet the Press.’’

All 100 senators — but not reporters or the public — have been invited to a meeting Monday evening to seek a compromise that a handful of lawmakers are now exploring.

‘‘We need to start talking to each other instead of at each other,’’ McConnell said.

It’s not clear a conversation would produce any agreement.

Reid calls the changes minor and narrow. McConnell calls them unprecedented and overbroad.


Reid says the proposal applies only to those tapped to serve in the administration, not for lifetime posts as judges. McConnell says it would fundamentally deny senators their prerogative to query nominees.

Reid said the nominees would protect consumers, workers, and the environment. McConnell and his GOP allies say the picks are payback to Obama’s political base. ‘‘They’re driven by the unions,’’ Senator Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, said on ABC’s “This Week.’’

Countered Reid: ‘‘They have nothing against the qualifications. They don’t like the jobs these people have.’’

In particular, Republicans have objected to a pair of union-backed members, Richard Griffin and Sharon Block, on the National Labor Relations Board, who were appointed by Obama when he said the Senate was in recess. An appeals court has ruled that Obama exceeded his authority, and the board’s actions are in legal limbo.

Republicans also have objected to Obama’s pick to lead the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, which was created as part of Wall Street overhaul legislation and which the GOP opposed. Obama nominated former Ohio attorney general Richard Cordray more than two years ago.

‘‘I think a president should have the right to put their team out there,’’ said Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota. ‘‘Why we can’t just do 51 votes is beyond me.’’

The depth of the discord between Reid and McConnell was apparent on Thursday, when the two leaders had several sharp exchanges on the Senate floor.

“These are dark days in the history of the Senate,” McConnell said, adding that the rule change suggested by Reid would lead to the majority leader being remembered as “the worst leader of the Senate ever.”

Under the current Senate rules, Republicans at least have the power to delay action through filibusters, which is partly why they strongly oppose the Democrats’ plan to change the rules. In the House, where the Republicans rule, the Democrats are largely powerless to do anything but protest.

Before his reelection, Obama liked to tell supporters that a second term would ‘‘break the fever’’ with Republicans, arguing that they no longer would need to routinely block his agenda because he wouldn’t be seeking election again. By last month, that optimism was gone.

‘‘When it comes to doing the things that need to get done, we’re just not getting a lot of cooperation from the other side,’’ Obama told donors at a June fund-raiser in Palo Alto, Calif.

The White House has already had two major legislative letdowns earlier this year — a gun control measure that Republicans blocked in the Senate and the failure to avoid automatic spending cuts that further trimmed the budget.