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Democrats may try to end Senate filibusters

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) addresses reporters after the weekly Democratic caucus luncheon at the U.S. Capitol in Washing
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) addresses reporters after the weekly Democratic caucus luncheon at the U.S. Capitol in Washing

By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, frustrated with a gridlocked Congress, may try to strip Republicans of their power to use procedural roadblocks known as filibusters to halt President Barack Obama's judicial and executive branch nominees.

Reid said he would discuss with fellow Democrats on Thursday the possibility of taking such action with an unprecedented Senate rules change.

"By the time the day (Thursday) is out, you'll have a better idea about what we'll try to do," Reid told reporters on Tuesday.

Republicans say that eliminating the filibuster would turn the Senate into the House of Representatives, where rules allow the chamber's majority to virtually ignore the minority.

"I'm worried, very worried," said veteran Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona. "There has been wrong on both sides, but this could destroy the Senate."

Filibusters were designed to allow the minority to demand unlimited debate and force the majority to compromise. They initially required senators to stand and speak, ending when the speaking stopped.

The rules were changed years ago to permit them to continue until the opposing side musters a super-majority of votes, now 60, in the 100-seat Senate. This helped spur more filibusters.

Filibusters have been used in recent years to block nominees and turn the Senate into a graveyard for much of Obama's legislative agenda.

Republicans deny being obstructionists, citing scores of Obama nominees who have been confirmed and stacks of legislation that have been passed. They accuse Reid of trying to pick a fight with them to fire up his party's liberal base.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Democrats apparently want to change the rules because they are not getting everything they want, when they want it.

"Let's get real here. That's not how a democracy functions," McConnell declared in a Senate speech.

DOING IT WITH 51 VOTES INSTEAD OF 67

Sixty-seven votes are needed to change Senate rules, including those for the filibuster. But Democrats, who control the chamber, 54-46, could do it with 51 by using for the first time a procedural power play dubbed the "nuclear option."

Here's how:

In open session, the Senate parliamentarian would formally advise the chamber's chair, Vice President Joe Biden or his designated stand-in, that 67 votes are needed for a rule change.

The chair would echo the parliamentarian's finding, prompting Reid to move to overrule the chair and propose that all rule changes could be done with just 51 votes. Senate procedure permits most matters, including overruling the chair, to be decided by a simple majority.

Democrats would then change the rules again, this time to reduce to 51 from 60 the number of votes needed to end filibusters against presidential nominees.

The "nuclear option" has been threatened over the years by both parties, but never deployed, primarily because the party in the majority knows that it will be in the minority at some point and likely want the filibuster in its arsenal.

Congress has become so divided and dysfunctional in recent years that it has been unable to perform such basic tasks as agreeing on an annual federal budget. Along the way, it has received record-low approval ratings near single digits.

Democratic aides say Reid is considering only changing the rule on filibusters for nominations, not legislation. But once a precedent is set, both sides note, it could be extended.

Reid is expected to decide whether to ask Democrats to pull the trigger on the "nuclear option" in coming weeks, but he first wants to see if Republicans block a number of embattled nominees, aides say.

They include: Gina McCarthy to head the Environmental Protection Agency; Thomas Perez to become secretary of labor; Richard Cordray to become director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; and at least three nominees to fill vacancies on the National Labor Relations Board.

None has been filibustered this year, but they might be.

Senate Republicans have vowed to block any director for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau until structural changes are made in the agency created to combat fiscal fraud.

Republicans also have opposed nominees at the NLRB, hobbling the agency that investigates charges of unfair labor practices.

Democratic Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island declined to predict what Reid will do.

"But I can tell you that Harry is very frustrated and rightfully so about the failure of the Senate to confirm a number of executive appointees, not because they are not qualified, but because Republicans don't like their agencies," Reed said.

While Reid expects at least a couple of Senate Democrats may oppose the "nuclear option," he does not expect much, if any, public backlash, a party aide said.

"The public doesn't like Congress. Reid wants to change how it works. Republicans will be defending the status quo. We expect to win that argument," the aide said.

(Editing by Paul Simao and Mohammad Zargham)

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