WASHINGTON – The immediate and the institutional are on a collision course in the Senate, where majority Democrats want to erode the right of minority Republicans to block confirmation of President Barack Obama's picks for administration posts.
On one side is the fate of a handful of appointees. "We shouldn't be waiting around here for months and months and months to get a vote on one of these nominees," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said Friday, as he and Democrats threatened to make a unilateral change in the rules.
Reid simultaneously pushed ahead on seven Obama nominees whom Republicans have blocked from receiving a yes-or-no vote. One, Richard Cordray, has been in confirmation limbo for more than two years. Few, if any, are said by their critics to be unqualified to hold office, and all could command majority support but have appeared to lack the 60 votes needed to overcome GOP delaying tactics.
On the other side is the near certainty that once weakened, the rights of the Senate minority would be reduced even further the next time the majority party wants to jam through a four-year Cabinet appointment or a lifetime seat for a justice whose confirmation might tilt the balance of power on the Supreme Court for a decade or more.
"I guarantee you, it's a decision that, if they actually go through with it, they will live to regret," the Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said of the Democrats.
In an institution that takes pride in calling itself "the greatest deliberative body in the world," that's a prediction that rings increasingly hollow among Democrats. More than half of the party's rank and file have never experienced life in the Senate minority, and much of the impetus for the rules changes comes from them.
One, Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, said Republican tactics run counter to the system that James Madison and Alexander Hamilton helped set up more than two centuries ago. Another, Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, said the GOP was perpetuating a "tyranny of the minority."
A third, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, a former governor, said any president should be able to have a team in place, and "unfortunately it doesn't seem to be the case" as a result of Republicans.
Across the political aisle, it's the more senior Republicans who warn of the long-term effects on the Senate if Reid carries out his threat.
"I've been in both the majority and the minority a number of times, and I have to tell you'd I'd fight to my death for the rights of the minority because that's one way that the United States Senate is the most important legislative body in the world," said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, first elected in 1976.
Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, first elected in 1980, said, "Basically, what you're doing is destroying the Constitution if we go ahead with this, if it destroys the checks and balances that the Senate is, the only institution in our political system where minority views are protected."
In classic Senate fashion, the more heated the rhetoric, the most intense the search for a compromise. All 100 senators have been invited to a meeting Monday, with the press and public barred, to seek a compromise that a handful are now exploring.
For now, each side has its own version of the facts.
McConnell says the entire episode is an attempt by Reid to win confirmation for a pair of union-backed members of the National Labor Relations Board who were seated without Senate confirmation. The two, Richard Griffin and Sharon Block, were given recess appointments by Obama. An appeals court has ruled that he exceeded his authority, and the board's actions since they took their seats are in legal limbo.
On Thursday, McConnell said "Big Labor" was putting pressure on Reid, and he offered to expedite consideration of two replacements for Griffin and Block if Obama chose to appoint them. It's an offer that officials say he's made before.
McConnell also noted that in recent weeks Republicans have permitted speedy confirmation of Obama's second-term secretaries of commerce and transportation, a new budget director and numerous judges.
As Reid threatened to change the rules, Republicans also abruptly announced they would step aside and permit confirmation of Tom Perez as labor secretary, and Gina McCarthy to head of the Environmental Protection Agency. So, too Fred P. Hochberg, named to head the Export-Import Bank, one of the seven on Reid's roster but only recently approved by committee and not long on the wait-list.
Finally, McConnell says he and Reid agreed earlier this year not to support any changes in the rules except in the traditional way, by a two-thirds majority, requiring bipartisan agreement.
The way Reid explains it, well-qualified nominees are confirmed with little or no opposition — after Republicans delay a vote for months on end. In some cases, he said, GOP senators object simply because "they refuse to accept the law of the land." He cited Cordray, named in 2011 to lead the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, and McCarthy at EPA.
He accuses McConnell of failing to live up to last winter's agreement to work on nominations "consistent with the norms and traditions of the Senate."
Since then, Reid said, Republicans had mounted the first ever filibuster against a nominee, Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense, who eventually was confirmed. John Brennan's appointment as head of the Central Intelligence Committee was also held up, and McCarthy and Perez have been blocked.