Senate Democrats are threatening to defang Republicans' ability to block presidential nominations, reigniting a conflict over Senate rules that consistently sparks partisan passions.
"I think more and more people are beginning to realize that a 60-vote Senate means the minority gets to decide what happens, and that shouldn't be," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.
Majority Leader Harry Reid has not announced whether he'll move forward with changing Senate rules to allow a simple majority on judicial and executive nominations. But a Senate Democratic leadership aide said Reid won't take the possibility off the table, and President Pro Tempore Patrick Leahy of Vermont called for a "drastic measure" if nominations were held.
"Republicans blocking qualified nominees definitely increases the chances," the aide said.
The long-simmering fight reignited on Thursday when Republicans blocked a pair of Obama administration nominees during procedural votes.
The nomination of Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., to head the agency overseeing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac went down on a 56-42 cloture vote, and Republicans also blocked the nomination of Patricia Ann Millett to be a Circuit Court judge for the District of Columbia by a vote of 55-38.
Watt's nomination was politicized because conservatives, including the Club for Growth, opposed him, saying it would be inappropriate for a politician to fill such a role.
"I have said from day one that a technocrat, not a politician, should lead the FHFA, the regulator charged with overseeing the $5 trillion portfolios of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac," said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.
Republicans objected to Millett's nomination, saying the court's case load is light and that Democrats want to fill court vacancies with Democratic appointees who would favor Democratic issues on the bench.
"Our Democratic colleagues and the administration's supporters have been fairly candid about it," said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. "They have admitted they want to control the court so it will advance the president's agenda."
The battle also comes as a bicameral conference committee works toward a Dec. 13 deadline to produce recommendations on a budget deal. That matters because moving forward with government funding bills is effectively stalled as the committee hashes out spending levels.
As the budget deadlines creep closer, there's a chance that the Senate will reconsider the Watt and Millett nominations, the aide said. Reid voted no on each of the procedural roll calls so that he'll have the ability to reconsider the nominations.
The matter of nominations comes months after Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and John McCain, R-Ariz., brokered a deal to avoid the "nuclear option" in July. In the last deal, President Obama agreed to withdraw two National Labor Relations Board nominees in exchange for Republicans' permitting a vote on Richard Cordray as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Some Democrats viewed the failed votes on Thursday as a chance to revisit a change in the rules, arguing against short-term deals that — in their view — do not solve the bigger problem.
"I'm not that attracted to going through another tortured process to get a temporary deal that goes by the wayside within days or weeks. I just think we should bite the bullet and change the rules at this point," said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.
Republicans argue against the nuclear option, saying that changing the rules would come back to haunt Democrats should the GOP regain the majority in 2014 or beyond.
That perhaps explains why some more-experienced Democrats hold back when asked whether the Senate should change its rules.
"There comes a tipping point," said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate. Asked whether the Senate had reached that point this time, Durbin gestured toward the Mansfield Room just off the Senate floor, where his caucus was meeting on Thursday afternoon.
"I'll find out in here," he said.