WASHINGTON – A showdown looming, Republicans and Democrats struggled without success Monday night in marathon, closed-door talks to resolve the fate of several of President Barack Obama's stalled appointees, a dispute that threatened what little bipartisan cooperation remains in the Senate.
Emerging from the session in the ornate Old Senate Chamber – where the public and media were barred – lawmakers from both parties reported progress toward a compromise and said the party leaders would continue talks into the night.
"We've had a very good conversation," said Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Yet he gave no indication that he planned to seek a delay in a series of roll calls planned for morning on confirmation of seven presidential appointees whom Republicans have so far blocked from receiving yes-or-no votes.
Don Stewart, a spokesman for Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said: "A clear bipartisan majority in the meeting believed the leaders ought to find a solution. And discussions will continue."
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 in a morning speech before the Center for American Progress, Democrats will change the Senate's rules to strip them of their ability to delay.
The group of nominees includes Obama's picks to head the Labor Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Export-Import Bank, whom Republicans have recently said they would allow to be confirmed.
Most of the controversy has surrounded three appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, two of whom are in office as a result of a recess appointment that bypassed the Senate, and a head for the newly created Consumer Finance Protection Bureau.
In one sign of progress, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said fellow Republicans were now willing to stand aside for confirmation of Richard Cordray to the CFPB, although he said Obama should find replacements for the two NLRB nominees.
While there were numerous reports of progress toward a compromise in the closed-door meeting, Reid's pointed observation that votes were still planned for morning had the effect of keeping pressure on Republicans to give ground.
Nearly all 100 senators attended what amounted to an off-the-record session in the chamber where the Senate debated slavery and other momentous issues of the 19th century. In a reference to history, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C, prompted laughter when he said that the last time a senator from his state spoke in the room, "the Union dissolved."
Senators in both parties said the session had been candid and even overdue in an institution where gridlock and acrimony have increasingly become the order of the day.
Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., who proposed the meeting last week, said afterward, "I think there's an opportunity to work things out."
Another Republican, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, told reporters, "I think there's enough perception on both sides that the shoe could be on the other foot very quickly."
In attempting to persuade Democrats not to seek a rules change unilaterally, Republicans have noted that they will one day have a majority. Also part of the discussion is the realization that a future majority could decide to strip the minority party of the right to delay lifetime judicial nominations, or perhaps even legislation that can remain on the books for decades or longer.
In the current dispute, Reid is proposing a change to apply only to appointments to administration positions, which ends when a president's term does.
The argument has not held much sway among Democrats, more than half of whom have not yet experienced life in the Senate minority. As a result, the drive to force approval for Obama's stalled nominees has its greatest support among relatively junior Democrats.
One of them, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said after the closed-door meeting: "There were no solutions. So I think we're headed to votes right now."
In his 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 rules 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, where both parties pay tribute to maintaining minority rights that are far stronger than in the House. Rules changes generally are made with at least two-thirds vote of the Senate, assuring bipartisan support.
"I guarantee you, it's a decision that, if they actually go through with it, they will live to regret," McConnell said last week of the Democrats.
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.
In its purest form, a Senate delay can mean a classic filibuster — such as when Sen. Strom Thurmond stood at his desk in 1957 and spoke for a few minutes longer than 24 straight hours in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent action on historic civil rights legislation.
In the past half-century, the filibuster has evolved, as have other means of stalling votes without requiring an around-the-clock speech that defies human endurance.
In the current case of Gina McCarthy, who was named to head the EPA in March, Reid said during the day that Republicans had submitted more than 1,100 questions for her to answer about her plans at an agency they frequently criticize. He said they also refused to attend a committee hearing to vote on the nomination, forcing Democrats to summon a mortally ill Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., from home so enough lawmakers would be present to conduct business.
Reid said he called Lautenberg's wife and told her, "We have to have him here." Reid added: "And he literally on his deathbed came down here, unhooked the stuff that is keeping him alive, came down here from New Jersey." Lautenberg died last month.
In recent days, Republicans have signaled they will no longer attempt to block votes on several of the seven, including McCarthy, Labor Secretary-designate Tom Perez and Fred Hochberg to head the Export-Import Bank. They have refused to agree to the same for Richard Cordray, named in 2011 to head a newly created Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, or Richard Griffin and Sharon Block, appointed the same year to the National Labor Relations Board. Also stalled is Mark Pearce, nominated this year to a new term as head of the NLRB, which rules on collective bargaining disputes between unions and employers.
Associated Press writers Alan Fram, Charles Babington and Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.