By David Espo
WASHINGTON: A showdown looming, Republicans and Democrats groped for a compromise behind closed doors Monday over confirming stalled White House appointees in a dispute that threatened what little bipartisan cooperation remains in the Senate.
Nearly all 100 senators attended the rare closed-door meeting in the Capitol’s Old Senate Chamber, just down the hall from where they normally debate the issues of the day with the public and news media in attendance.
After two hours, Sen. Pat Roberts emerged and said the talks were continuing and had been productive. “I think the mood there is ‘How can we get out of this?’ ” said the Kansas Republican. He gave no details.
Majority Leader Harry Reid insisted in advance that Republicans permit yes-or-no confirmation votes on all seven of the nominees at issue. If they won’t, he declared, Democrats will change the Senate’s rules to strip them of their ability to delay.
There was no formal response from Republicans, although Reid and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell met privately during the day. Officials said several possible compromises had been floated in various meetings and conversations.
“Maybe there’s a little bit of a thaw,” said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., as he entered the meeting. “The leaders are continuing to talk, the White House is involved in discussions with some of our members. Nothing has resulted from that, but the fact that people are still talking is a positive.”
Officials in both parties said there had been discussions about Republicans stepping aside to permit confirmation for nearly all of the seven, with Obama agreeing to submit a replacement for at least one of two stalled appointees to the National Labor Relations Board.
In a morning speech at the Center for American Progress, Reid said there was no room for a middle ground allowing votes on some but not all of the seven.
“Minor change, no big deal,” he said then of the possible change. “My efforts are directed at saving the Senate from becoming obsolete.”
Republicans counter that a rules change made unilaterally by one party would profoundly alter the Senate.
At the core of the dispute is the minority party’s power to stall or block a yes-or-no vote on nearly anything, from legislation to judicial appointments to relatively routine nominations for administration positions. While a majority vote is required to confirm presidential appointees, it takes 60 votes to end delaying tactics and proceed to a yes-or-no vote.
The Democrats are threatening to change the rules only as they apply to nominations for administration positions, not judges or legislation. Asked what other changes he might want to make, Reid said, “Nothing right now.”