RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The Senate filibuster has a dramatic history as a last-ditch option but in recent years the minority has often filibustered to thwart the Senate majority. Now, exasperated Democrats are threatening to change the filibuster rules to keep the Republican minority from holding up confirmations of President Obama's nominees. The Democrats say they'll use a simple majority - just 51 votes - to accomplish that change. Republicans warn that resorting to what's being called the nuclear option could blow up the Senate. NPR's David Welna has more.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: The fight over Republicans using filibusters to hold up nominations is as old at the Obama administration. In January, Senate Democrats threatened to use a parliamentary maneuver to strip Republicans of their most potent tools, delaying or blocking nominees - the filibuster. That led to a deal in which nominations would be expedited in exchange for no more rules changes. Yesterday, majority leader Harry Reid acknowledged he'd agree to that deal.
SENATOR HARRY REID: Our agreement is a two-way street. If one party fails to uphold their end, the agreement, of course, is null and void.
WELNA: Reid accused minority leader Mitch McConnell of failing to keep a promise to follow the norms and traditions of the Senate when it comes to nominations.
REID: If anyone thinks since the first of this year that the norms and traditions of the Senate have been followed by the Republican leader, they're living in ga-ga land.
WELNA: McConnell shot back that Democrats trying to make a power grab that manufactured what he called a phony crisis.
SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: Now, it's pretty obvious Senate Democrats are gearing up today to make one of the most consequential changes to the United States Senate and the history of our nation. And I want everybody to understand this is no small matter we're talking about here. And I guarantee you it's a decision that if they actually go through with it they will live to regret.
WELNA: And Lamar Alexander, the top Republican on the Rules Committee, argued that removing the 60-vote threshold needed to end a filibuster of a nominee would reduce the Senate to something akin to the majority-ruled House.
SENATOR LAMAR ALEXANDER: Freight train can run through the House of Representatives in one day and it could run through here in one day - and this year it might be a democratic freight train; in a year and a half it might be the Tea Party express. And there are a lot of people on that side of the aisle that might be very unhappy with the agenda that 51 people who have creative imaginations on this side of the aisle could do if they could do anything they wanted to do with 51 votes.
WELNA: Michigan's Carl Levin, who's one of the Senate's most senior Democrats, said he too worried about the ramifications of changing the rules by a simple majority vote.
SENATOR CARL LEVIN: I mean, you can't have it both ways. And that's why when the Republicans tried to do a nuclear option a few years ago, Democrats fought like heck against it - all of us eloquently. Senators Kennedy and Byrd and Lautenberg and...
WELNA: But those senators have all died and it appears few, if any, of today's Democrats would join Levin in opposing a rules change. Most members of the Democratic caucus have never been in the minority, including Oregon Jeff Merkley, who's led the push to change the rules.
SENATOR JEFF MERKLEY: Now, we have to work to restore the vision of our founders, vision of a simple majority, timely up and down votes on nominations. We owe this to the executive branch. We certainly owe it to our citizens who re-elected President Obama.
WELNA: Merkley's colleagues allowed that the nuclear option would be unchartered territory for the Senate. Claire McCaskill is a Democrat from Missouri.
SENATOR CLAIRE MCCASKILL: I understand the fear of going there, but the fear of not doing something at this point basically permanently keeps us a pretty dysfunctional body.
WELNA: At the request of Republicans, senators from both parties will meet Monday evening to discuss what's become a looming crisis. The showdown could come Tuesday when the Senate votes on seven stalled nominations. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.