The accusations and threats are the result of an escalating conflict in which both leaders have faced increasing pressure from large swaths of junior senators. Fully 55 senators — 31 Democrats and 24 Republicans — have taken office since January 2007 and have served only with Democrats in charge.
The GOP’s blocking tactics in recent years have escalated, including brief filibusters of nominations for defense secretary and CIA director that usually are not subject to party politics. In those cases, McConnell bowed to pressure from junior Republicans who have never tasted the majority.
Under similar pressure from junior Democrats who never served in the minority, Reid has threatened twice before to ignore the long-standing precedent that changing the Senate’s rules requires 67 votes. That supermajority level is otherwise reserved for ratifying international treaties and removing an impeached president from office, a level meant to ensure that Senate rules would not change with the political winds the way they do in the authoritarian House.
Just last January, Reid told The Washington Post that he personally still believed in a “60-vote threshold” to end filibusters and that his threat to change the rules on a party-line vote was designed to extract concessions from McConnell.
On Thursday, Reid said he reversed course because Republicans had reached new levels of obstructing nominations, violating the spirit of a deal the two leaders hatched in January to avert a similar showdown.
“Republican obstructionism has affected nearly every one of President Obama’s nominees,” Reid said. “No president can safeguard America’s national and economic security to the best of his or her ability without their chosen team in place.”
At issue are nominees for secretary of labor, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, the heads of the CFPB and the Export-Import Bank, and several members of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
The most contentious nominations in question are those for the CFPB and NLRB. Republicans had been filibustering any nominee to lead the CFPB because of their opposition to the way the Dodd-Frank law regulating Wall Street had established the agency, and had been delaying nominees to the labor board. Fearing the two agencies had been left inoperable, Obama used his appointment power in January 2012 to temporarily fill those spots, rejecting decades of previous precedent that dictated a president could do so only while the Senate was adjourned for a lengthy period.
Federal courts have since ruled that those appointments were invalid, casting in doubt more than 1,000 rulings that the NLRB has issued in the past 18 months. The Supreme Court will hear a case on the constitutionality of those appointments in its next term.
If the Senate confirms those temporary appointees to full terms, the board could presumably reissue those rulings and render moot the debate over their validity.
Republicans said Thursday they were not willing to confirm the nominees appointed by recess appointments and urged Obama to send up new names for those posts. They also accused Democrats of yielding to a labor-union campaign to change the confirmation rules in the hope that the NLRB would be cleared of uncertainty.
“They seem to be in the pockets of the unions,” Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said.
Several senior Democrats — led by Sen. Carl Levin (Mich.) — oppose the proposed rule changes, warning their junior colleagues that it would lead to Republican abuse when that party holds the majority.