POLITICS
07/11/2013 10:02 am ET | Updated Jul 11, 2013

Harry Reid Puts Finger On 'Nuclear' Button In Filibuster Fight With Mitch McConnell

WASHINGTON -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) squared off with his Republican counterpart Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in a remarkable exchange on the Senate floor Thursday morning. Reid raised the possibility of a mid-session rules change, dubbed the "nuclear option," which would prevent Republicans from filibustering White House nominees to agency and cabinet positions.

"The majority leader is about to sacrifice his reputation and this institution," McConnell warned, as the two traded charges of breaking their respective words to one another in a tense exchange. "When the founders said 'advise and consent,' I don't think they meant 'sit down and shut up.'"

"It could be said that Sen. McConnell has broken his word. That certainly could be said," Reid charged. "An agreement is a two-way street."

Reid will appear on NBC's "Meet The Press" this Sunday to discuss filibuster reform, according to Senate sources, and will speak on the topic Monday at the Center for American Progress, CAP announced, giving further evidence of Reid's commitment to the effort. But as Republicans took the floor to implore Reid not to move forward, he indicated there may be a resolution short of reform.

"All you need is six, six Republicans," Reid told Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) on the floor of the Senate, suggesting that if enough Republicans joined the 54 Democrats in approving the stalled nominees, he might be satisfied. "If that happens, I have no complaints."

Wicker responded, however, that the labor nominees may represent "extraordinary circumstances," and Don Stewart, a spokesman for McConnell, said that Reid may be asking for too much.

Wicker proposed that both parties gather on Tuesday for a private conversation in the Old Senate Chamber, which is just off the floor and was the scene of some of the nation's great debates in the 19th Century. Reid said he was open to such a conversation, but either wanted the nominees approved, or the rules changed.

"I want this resolved," said Reid, "one way or the other."

Senate Democrats will meet later on Thursday to gauge whether 50 votes exist for what is also known alternately as the "nuclear option" or the "constitutional option," depending on whether one opposes or supports it. Democrats had at least 51 votes to change the Senate rules at the beginning of the session, according to a HuffPost count.

The fight over the filibuster in December and January was waged in public, with outside groups and progressive senators such as Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon trying to pressure Reid into action. This time, Reid and Merkley are working together and the outside advocacy has been much quieter, indicating that Reid himself is invested in the outcome.

One key difference this time is that the rules change would not apply to judicial nominees. Senate insiders say that Democrats lack the votes to change the rules for judges, but agency nominees are an easier sell. The president was elected, goes the argument, and has earned the right to choose his own staff, free of a filibuster. If Republicans want to pick the White House staff, then they should win the election and occupy the White House, the argument concludes. Judges, on the other hand, are a separate branch of government and are appointed for life. To underscore their reasoning, Democrats on Thursday released a compilation of video clips of Republicans such as McConnell (below). "I've been a proud guardian of gridlock myself," said McConnell in 2005, "but it never made sense for executive branch appointments."

"I've gotten every impression that Reid and leadership are determined this time to do it," said one aide advocating for reform.

Another Democratic aide involved in the effort said that the Senate remains "on track for a vote," despite fierce Republican opposition. "Reid will speak to the caucus today and take them through next steps," the source told HuffPost. "Support is there."

McConnell has argued that Reid is breaking his word by changing the rules mid-session, after promising he wouldn't do so. But Reid, on the Senate floor Thursday, said that "an agreement is a two-way street," and read off a checklist of promises that McConnell had made and broken by continuing to obstruct nominees.

"He promised to, quote, 'work with the majority to process nominations,'" Reid said, reading McConnell's quotes. "He committed that, quote, 'the two leaders will continue to work together to schedule votes on nominees in a timely manner by unanimous consent, except in extraordinary circumstances.' Those were his words. Those were his commitments. Those were his promises. By any objective standard, he has broken them."

McConnell's filibuster of Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense was the "first ever in the history of our republic," Reid said. "This obstruction has continued at every level, and through creative, new methods."

HuffPost reported in May that Reid was setting up a challenge over Senate rules to come after the passage of immigration reform, while pushing key nomination battles into July.

Republicans have objected to Obama's candidates to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Labor, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and multiple nominees to the National Labor Relations Board.

While the NLRB has been rendered impotent, the lives of many of the workers it is constituted to protect have unraveled, as HuffPost's Dave Jamieson has reported.

McConnell has warned Democrats that using the nuclear option will come back to haunt them when they are once again in the minority. On the Senate floor Thursday, McConnell said that "the hard left" was pushing reform and that "they're willing to do permanent, irreversible damage to this institution, and it appears as if they've convinced the majority leader to do their bidding ... Let me assure you this Pandora's box, once opened, will be utilized again and again by future majorities."

Reid said he wasn't worried about the threat. "I don't care who's elected, whether it's Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden, that person shouldn't have to go through what we've gone through."

WATCH: Democrats Compilation Of Republicans Supporting Rules Changes

UPDATE: 2:50 p.m. -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Thursday afternoon he is moving forward on seven nominees to labor, consumer protection and environmental agencies. Initial votes in the process could begin as early as this afternoon, setting up a final showdown for early next week. Negotiations are underway to stave off a fight, but Reid said he won't settle for the approval of just a handful of nominees.

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