WASHINGTON - The Senate inched closer to an eleventh-hour bid Monday night to avert an unprecedented maneuver to change the chamber's rules governing presidential appointees, with nearly all 100 senators huddled in a rare bipartisan, closed-door caucus.
Rank-and-file senators came out of the meeting reporting progress on the confirmation prospects of President Barack Obama's selections to head low-profile but influential agencies. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., echoed that sentiment but said no resolution had been reached, leaving in place a critical 10 a.m. (EDT) Tuesday vote that would set up the historic clash over changing the Senate rules on a raw party-line vote so that Cabinet- and agency-level nominees could be confirmed without having to overcome a filibuster.
Republicans have threatened to retaliate on a host of other legislative matters, creating the possibility that the already toxic tensions in the chamber would hit new heights because of the move that some call "the nuclear option."
Invoking the spirit of early 19th century deals that delayed the onset of the Civil War, senators met in the Old Senate Chamber, which until 1859 served as the meeting room for such key pacts as the Missouri Compromise of 1820.
"There's no deal but there's a much better understanding,"" said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., one of his party's most senior senators. Rockefeller said there was a framework for a possible deal before the showdown votes on Obama's current picks to run the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Some exited more grim, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who spent the previous week in shuttle diplomacy with Reid, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and the White House.
At the outset, Reid remained defiant Monday, saying that Republicans can avoid a showdown by backing off threats to block seven nominees slated for consideration.
"I love the Senate, but right now the Senate is broken and needs to be fixed. It's time for course correction," Reid said at the Center for American Progress, a think tank closely aligned with the Obama administration and congressional Democrats.
White House officials tried to distance the president from the messy procedural fight, saying that Obama had left the matter in Reid's hands. Obama has made calls to wavering senators asking them to back Reid if he makes the move.
"The Senate needs to confirm this president's nominees in a timely and efficient manner," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Monday. "That is true and will be true for the next president and the next president after that. This has become ridiculous."
The dispute centers on Republican treatment of Obama's nominees, particularly selections for the NLRB, the new CFPB and a couple of Cabinet posts. Republicans, holding 45 seats and enough to filibuster any nominee, have been refusing to confirm the selections for the NLRB and the CFPB because they were given interim appointments by Obama that have since been ruled unconstitutional by federal appellate courts. The case is heading for a Supreme Court ruling likely next year.
Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Richard Durbin, D-Ill., agreed that the bulk of the conversations focused on those two agency posts.
Hatch said Republicans appeared willing to confirm Cordray, but some GOP senators have been pushing for reforms to the CFPB in exchange for supporting him. Hatch remained steadfast in seeing two different Democratic selections for the CFPB, but Durbin said Democrats remained opposed to that.
Without a deal Durbin - his party's chief vote counter - predicted Reid still had enough support to change the rules on party lines.
"We're going to have a majority," he said.
Democrats see these delays as part of a broader escalation of procedural obstruction that the GOP minority has used to slow down the confirmation of even nominees who eventually win broad bipartisan votes.
One aide to a Democratic senator, requesting anonymity to discuss the closed-door meeting, said that a senior Democrat told his Republican colleagues that they have disrespected the president with their treatment of his nominees.
Reid in particular has focused on McConnell's relenting to pressure from junior Republicans to allow brief filibusters of the confirmation of Chuck Hagel as defense secretary and John Brennan as CIA director.
Both those posts have traditionally been approved on large bipartisan votes in which no vote was even required to shut off the filibuster.