Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid at a news conference on Capitol Hill. (Evan Vucci / Associated…)
WASHINGTON - With a possible showdown over the filibuster looming this week, the Senate's top Democrat said his move to limit Republicans' ability to block presidential nominations would amount to only a "minimal" change to Senate rules, while his GOP counterpart called for Democrats to "pull back from the brink."
In back-to-back appearances Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also defended the way their current positions contradict statements each made a decade ago, when the then-Republican majority considered a similar change in Senate rules.
The full Senate will hold a rare joint meeting in the historic Old Senate Chamber on Monday night to discuss Democrats' threat to change Senate procedure to allow presidential nominations to be confirmed by a majority vote. Current rules give a minority the ability to block action unless 60 senators vote to end debate.
Reid said Republicans had abused the filibuster to delay some of President Obama's choices in an unprecedented fashion.
"I have been leader for about the same time Lyndon Johnson was. During the time he was leader, one filibuster. Me, 420," Reid said. "During the time that President Obama has been president, he's had 16 filibusters against his nominations. During the entire history of this country, the country, there's only been 20."
He added: "The changes we're making are very, very minimal. What we're doing is saying, 'Look, American people, shouldn't President Obama have someone working for him that he wants?'"
McConnell countered that only four of Obama's 1,540 nominations have been defeated. Even with the 60-vote requirement on certain nominations, every Cabinet official to come to a vote has been confirmed.
"What is the problem here?" McConnell asked.
Reid has scheduled votes Tuesday for seven nominees, including Obama's picks to head the Labor Department, Environmental Protection Agency and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and three nominees to the National Labor Relations Board.
If some are blocked, Democrats may then attempt to deploy what critics have called the "nuclear option" - changing Senate rules by a simple majority vote.
Typically rules changes require a two-thirds vote; Republicans say Reid would be "breaking the rules of the Senate in order to change the rules," but Democrats say the rules allow a majority vote to amend them, a position Republicans took a decade ago when George W. Bush was president.
NBC host David Gregory pointed out to Reid that he wrote in a 2008 book that a Republican attempt to make a similar change in Senate rules during a showdown over judicial appointments in the Bush years would have been illegal.
Reid said the current situation was "nothing like what went on before."
"This is not judges. This is not legislation. This is allowing the people of America to have a president who can have his team," he said.
McConnell, meanwhile, was confronted with a 2005 interview in which he argued that Republicans could move forward with rules changes by a majority vote.
"I'm glad we didn't do it," McConnell responded. "We went to the brink, and we pulled back because cooler heads prevailed, and we knew it would be mistake for the long-term future of the Senate and the country. That's what I hope is going to happen here."
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