WASHINGTON – Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday that he's considering changing his chamber's rules to make it harder for minority Republicans to block President Barack Obama's nominations, a warning shot that suggested Democrats might soon use their power in the chamber to end a long-simmering partisan dispute.
"I'm at the point where we need to do something to allow government to function," Reid, D-Nev., told reporters.
The remarks by Reid in effect edged Democrats closer to using their 55-45 Senate advantage to muscle through parliamentary changes that would make it harder for minority parties to use filibusters to block presidential appointments. He spoke a day after Republicans used a filibuster -- which take 60 votes to end -- to block the third Obama nominee since Oct. 31 to one of the nation's top courts.
Reid said he was considering changing the rules that apply to nominees for top agency jobs, but not for Supreme Court justices.
He did not specify what he would do, but Democrats have been talking in recent weeks about ending a minority party's ability to force the majority to produce 60 votes for a nomination to proceed to a vote on final confirmation.
On Monday, the Senate voted 53-38 to allow a final confirmation vote on Robert L. Wilkins, a district court judge in Washington, to U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. That fell seven short of the 60 votes needed to end GOP delays, with only two Republicans voting to let Wilkins' nomination proceed.
Also blocked have been Obama's selections of attorney Patricia Millett and Cornelia Pillard, a Georgetown University law professor, to the D.C. circuit. That court has three vacancies, and its eight judges are divided evenly between those appointed by Democratic and GOP presidents.
The D.C. circuit court is considered the country's second most powerful court because it rules on White House and federal agency actions, giving it clout that can help or hinder a president's agenda.
Republicans have said Obama is trying to push the D.C. circuit's balance toward Democrats, and argued that its workload is too light to merit additional judges. They have not challenged the three nominees' qualifications.
"If `advise and consent' means anything at all, then occasionally there's going to be a situation where consent is not given," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. He said the Senate has approved an overwhelming number of Obama's judgeship nominations.
Democrats say the circuit's workload has changed little in recent years, and say Republicans favored filling its vacancies when Republican President George W. Bush was in the White House.
It has been unclear whether Reid has the 51 votes that he would need to revamp the Senate's rules. Some senior Democratic lawmakers have been wary of a change, arguing that their party would regret it whenever the GOP regains control of the Senate and White House.
Nonetheless, momentum seems to be growing among Democrats for such a change.
On Tuesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., now in her fifth six-year term, said she had changed her mind and now supported a rules change.
"The American people want us to legislate," she told reporters. "They want the government to operate. They want us to get our work done. You can't do it if the president can't get a Cabinet, a sub-Cabinet, judges, commissioners."
Seven-term veteran Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, expressed support for the idea last week.