Dems vs. GOP: Leaders nuke it out in fight over voting rule change

Senate leaders exchanged fire on Thursday as Democrats headed behind closed doors to make a decision on whether to trigger the "nuclear option."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellRubio: GOP Congress could go in different direction than Trump Pelosi blasts GOP leaders for silence on Trump Reid: Groping accusations show Trump’s ‘sickness’ MORE (R-Ky.) on Thursday warned the "nuclear option" would be the "end of the Senate" and accused Democrats of creating a "phony crisis" to move through President Obama's nominees.   

Changing Senate rules through a majority vote "would violate every protection of minority rights that have defined the United States Senate for as long as anyone can remember," McConnell said.

“This Pandora’s Box, once opened, will be utilized again and again by future majorities — and it will make the meaningful consensus-building that has served our nation so well a relic of the past," McConnell said on the Senate floor.

But Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidObama in Nevada: 'Heck no' to Trump, Joe Heck Dems double down on Nevada Latino vote Heck's rejection of Trump imperils Nevada Senate race MORE (D-Nev.) said Republicans have broken their promise, made earlier this year, to work with Democrats on Obama’s second-term Cabinet nominees.

“Republicans have turned advise and consent into deny and obstruct,” Reid said. “This gridlock is not only bad for the Senate, it’s bad for the country.”

Reid said he planned to file cloture on some of Obama’s nominees later Thursday, setting up a final showdown next week.

Liberal groups and labor unions are pushing Reid to change Senate rules on presidential appointments, arguing a limit on the use of the filibuster is needed to counter Republican obstruction.

Senate Republicans say the move would trigger a meltdown in relations and trample the rights of the minority.

The issue is coming to a head on Thursday at a meeting of Senate Democrats where they plan to make a decision about whether to "go nuclear."

Republicans on Thursday seemed to make an attempt to lower the temperature and dissuade Reid from changing the rules.

McConnell said Republicans would not prevent two of Obama’s nominations — Environmental Protection Agency nominee Gina McCarthyGina McCarthyGlobal climate pact may bump into Senate roadblock House Dems push EPA on fracking study Watchdog: EPA was too slow to act on Flint MORE and Labor Department nominee Tom Perez — from moving forward. 

“Both of these highly controversial nominees already have enough votes to clear a 60-vote hurdle,” McConnell said.

And Sen. Roger WickerRoger WickerGOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election Senate Democrats aren't losing the money race after all To protect taxpayers, the Hyde Amendment must be permanent MORE (R-Miss.) suggested to Reid that the parties hold a joint caucus lunch next week to try and resolve their differences.

“I think the majority leader would agree that this is a watershed moment,” Wicker said.

“Next Tuesday, let’s clear the Old Senate Chamber ... and quit talking past each other and see if there is a way for us to avoid this pivotal watershed moment in the Senate."

Reid said he was open to anything that would get Obama’s nominees confirmed.

While Republicans signaled a path to confirmation for the EPA and Labor nominees, the parties remained at loggerheads over Obama's nominees to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

McConnell expressed strong opposition to the NLRB nominees, and said Reid is trying to confirm officials already on the board who were "unlawfully" appointed in a recess session.

"Senate Democrats are getting ready to do permanent damage to the Senate in order to confirm three nominees that federal courts have said were unlawfully appointed," McConnell said.

Reid and McConnell (R-Ky.) have battled for months over the filibuster rules, with each leader accusing the other of breaking a gentleman's agreement reached at the beginning of the year.

At the start of the 113th Congress, Reid and McConnell agreed not to change the rules of the Senate without a supermajority so long as Republicans only blocked the administration’s nominees under “extraordinary circumstances.”

Reid on Thursday said Republicans have turned their backs on the deal by filibustering nominees such as Defense Secretary Chuck HagelChuck HagelCreating a future for vets in DC Republicans back Clinton, but will she put them in Pentagon? There's still time for another third-party option MORE.

“It could hardly be said that Sen. McConnell worked to process nominees, but it could be said that the Republican leader has broken his word,” Reid said. “This leaves me to wonder what exactly does my friend, and he is my friend, Sen. McConnell consider an extraordinary circumstance. Is it an extraordinary circumstance to simply dislike the nominee?”

McConnell countered that Reid is simply trying to justify using the nuclear option.

“He is trying to justify in advance what would be a very clear failure of honoring his word not to break the rules of the Senate to change the rules of the Senate,” McConnell said. “We need to keep our commitments around here.”

Reid stopped short of saying he would change the Senate rules but said he would no longer wait to confirm Obama's nominees. He said an agreement is a “two-way street.” 

Reid listed several Obama nominees that he said have had to wait more than 200 days to be confirmed, including McCarthy and Perez.

“It doesn’t matter who is elected, whether it’s Jeb Bush, Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonOhio GOP chairman will vote Trump: report Obama in Nevada: 'Heck no' to Trump, Joe Heck Clinton promotes early voting in North Carolina swing MORE or Joe BidenJoe BidenAmerica’s Eastern European mess Huckabee to Biden: Trump can land a 'face kick' The Trail 2016: Election night cliffhanger MORE, that person shouldn’t have to go through what we have over the last four years,” Reid said. “There are currently 15 executive branch nominees ready to be confirmed by the Senate. … They’ve been waiting more than 260 days.”

McConnell said Republicans are simply exercising their right to advise and consent on the president’s nominees. He said Reid’s version of advise and consent is “sit down and shut up.”

— This story was updated at 1:30 p.m.