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Senate Democrats on Capitol Hill are fed up. And today, their leader, Harry Reid, made clear that he's had enough. The political consequences could be lasting and even change the nature of the Senate. At issue are President Obama's nominations. The Democrats feel that they've been unfairly blocked by the Republican minority. So today, Democrats said that they are ready to resort to the so-called nuclear option to speed up the nomination process.
Joining me from the capital now to talk about what looks to be a pretty big development there is NPR's David Welna. Hi, David.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.
SIEGEL: What are the Democrats proposing to do in the Senate, and why is it being called a nuclear option?
WELNA: Well, Robert, Democrats are not saying exactly what they plan to do. But they've set up a vote for next Tuesday to end Republican filibusters on several of President Obama's more controversial nominees. And if they don't get the 60 votes you need for breaking any one of those filibusters, they say they're ready to change the rules of the Senate by a simple majority of 51 votes.
Now, the reason that's so controversial is because by the Senate's own rules, it normally takes a two-thirds majority of 67 votes to change the rules. And majority leader Harry Reid promised in January that he would abide by that. But Reid now says that minority leader Mitch McConnell did not keep his end of the bargain and did not adhere to the norms of the Senate when it comes to nominations.
So Democrats are practically daring Republicans now to block these stalled nominations because if they do, the rules could change so that nominees for the executive branch - such as cabinet officers or ambassadors - could no longer be blocked by the minority with a filibuster but would instead be subject only to a simple majority up or down vote.
SIEGEL: Now, again, we're not talking about judicial nominations. But even so, what was the Republican reaction to this today?
WELNA: Well, they say Democrats are making a naked power grab and that they're willing to break the Senate's rules in order to change its rules. And there's not much they can do about it other than to denounce the Democrats. And that's exactly what minority leader McConnell did this afternoon on the Senate floor.
SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: This is really a sad, sad day for the United States Senate. And if we don't pull back from the brink here, my friend, the majority leader, is going to be remembered as the worst leader of the Senate ever, the leader of the Senate who fundamentally changed the body. It makes me sad.
SIEGEL: I'm glad he's still his friend, David. Those are pretty harsh words.
WELNA: Yeah, they are. Well, you know, these are two lawyers in their 70s who have kept up a fairly cordial public relationship across the aisle from one another. But I think things really broke down today. During many years of covering the Senate, I have never heard as much invective exchanged between the Senate leaders as I heard today.
This was Reid's response to McConnell's warning that he'd be remembered as the worst leader of the Senate ever.
SENATOR HARRY REID: I don't want him to feel sorry for the Senate, certainly not for me. And I'm going to continue to try to speak in a tone that's appropriate. He's name-calling - he - I guess he follows - I hope not - the demagogue theory that the more you say something, even if it's false, people start believing it.
SIEGEL: Not name-calling but referring to him as a demagogue. The Democrats are saying Republicans have acted in bad faith when it comes to nominations. And Republicans said they haven't acted in bad faith. Who's right?
WELNA: Well, you know, I think the truth is that in general it's gotten increasingly difficult in recent years, whether Republicans or Democrats are running the Senate, to move nominations there because of the constant use of filibusters. For the first time ever - earlier this year, for example, we saw the nomination of a defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, face a filibuster on the Senate floor. And there are more than a dozen other nominees who've been waiting more than nine months to get a vote.
But, you know, the heart of this dispute is really about three nominees who President Obama recess appointed, two of them to the National Labor Relations Board and the other to be the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. And they are in those positions right now, but a circuit court in D.C. has ruled that those nominations were unconstitutional, and that's what's really being put to the test. Will they be confirmed by the Senate or not?
SIEGEL: OK. Thanks, David.
WELNA: You're welcome, Robert.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's David Welna on Capitol Hill. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.