Democrats took steps toward dramatically limiting Senate filibusters Thursday over the angry objections of Republicans who warned the move would destroy bipartisan cooperation in the chamber.
For months, Democrats, in the majority, have threatened to use the so-called "nuclear option" to jam through rules changes for filibusters, and a showdown is now likely early next week.
"The vast majority of my Democratic caucus wanted to move forward and change the rules," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid following a closed meeting in which Democratic leaders advocated banning filibusters of executive branch appointments, which they argue Republicans have abused.
Democratic leaders said they have votes to force the change using a parliamentary tactic that Republicans complain violates Senate rules.
"These are dark days in the history of the Senate," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said during an unusually pointed and personal exchange with Reid on the Senate floor.
"All we want is the for president of the United States, whoever that might be, Democrat or Republican, to have the team he wanted as contemplated in that document called the Constitution of the United States. That's not asking too much," Reid responded.
Reid set up a series of procedural votes beginning Tuesday on two cabinet members and five appointees to agency posts that Republicans have stalled for months. Reid suggested that if Republicans try to block votes on the nominees, he will move to change the Senate rules with the support of just 51 senators instead of the 67 supermajority typically required.
Republicans argue they have cleared nearly all the president's executive branch picks and that the Democrats are playing politics and overstating the problem.
In a late concession, which Reid rejected, McConnell said his party would immediately allow confirmation votes on all but three of the nominees. Those three -- two to the National Labor Relations Board and one to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau -- were tainted in the minds of Republicans because they originally had been nominated as "recess appointments" by Obama -- even though senators said they were in session.
Republicans remained steadfast against confirming them until the Supreme Court decides if their recess appointments were constitutional, something the court is considering.
Republicans warned Democrats were on a slippery slope.
"Make no mistake about it. We're talking about executive nominations today, but if they do this, it blows the door wide open," said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota. "They will have established a precedent and then it will just be a matter to time before they use it for judicial nominations and legislation as well. There's going to come a time here in the United States Senate when they're no longer in the majority and it's going to be very, very difficult to turn back the hands of time."
After rank and file Republicans pleaded with Reid to step back from his threat, Reid agreed to their request to hold a special meeting of all senators Monday night to discuss the issue. But there was little evidence the meeting would make much of a difference. Reid and McConnell even argued about when it was scheduled.