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Reid gives GOP ultimatum: Relent on nominees or I will go 'nuclear'

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Monday said unless Republicans allow votes on seven of President Obama's pending nominees, he will trigger the "nuclear option" this week.

The Senate is scheduled to begin voting Tuesday on the nominees. The first up for consideration will be Richard Cordray, Obama's pick to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. After that, Democrats will proceed to three nominees to the National Labor Relations Board.

Reid said he would accept nothing less than Republicans allowing up-or-down votes on all of Obama’s nominees, including Tom Perez and Gina McCarthy, the president's picks to head the Labor Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, respectively.

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"Let them stop the filibuster on the seven that I filed cloture on and we would have up-or-down votes on those people and we go on to the business of the day," he said in remarks delivered at the Center For American Progress Action Fund. "That seems pretty simple to me."

Republicans have warned that the use of the “nuclear option” would poison relations in the chamber, and last week vowed that no legislation would pass the Senate until the next election if it is used.

Members of both parties are scheduled to gather on Monday evening to see whether a deal can be reached to defuse the crisis.

But Reid said Republicans cannot justify blocking executive branch nominees on the grounds that they object to the laws that set up the consumer protection bureau and the labor relations board. Opposing the CFBP because its funding is not subject to congressional discretion, as Republicans do, is not a sufficient reason for obstructing Cordray’s nomination, he said.

"No one questions their capabilities, their credentials, their integrity,” Reid said of the nominees. “[Republicans are] doing it because they're trying to hold up, to obstruct and delay. That's what's going on around here.”

The seventh nominee up for a vote is Fred Hochberg, whom Obama has tapped to head the Export-Import Bank.

A spokesman for Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said while Reid has filed motions to end debate on various Cabinet nominees, Republicans have not defeated any of them. He said the Senate has confirmed 1,560 of Obama's nominees and rejected only four.

McConnell, who last week warned Reid would preside over the “end of the Senate” if he goes “nuclear,” on Sunday said he was hopeful that an eleventh-hour deal could be reached.

“We have an opportunity to pull back from the brink in this joint meeting that we’re going to have [with] all senators in the Old Senate Chamber Monday night,” McConnell said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “I hope we’ll come to our senses and not change the core of the Senate.”

Republicans say changing filibuster rules through a majority vote — even if only for executive branch nominees — will open a “Pandora's box” that leads to the trampling of minority rights in the Senate.

Reid characterized the pending rules change as small, and said he is not interested in bigger changes to filibuster rules that would lower the threshold for passing legislation or confirming judicial nominees below 60 votes.

“Right now the 60 protects progressive groups and conservative groups. Look at the gun thing,” Reid said, pointing to the Senate gun control debate earlier this year when the 60-vote threshold stymied a GOP amendment to allow reciprocity among states’ gun laws.

“I didn’t believe because they have some — I’m going to be as nice as I can about this — some crazy, absurd rule in Idaho and Utah, basically you can [take] a gun any place you wanted. I don’t think that would be good to have somebody fly into Las Vegas armed to the hilt because of some law they have in Idaho,” he said.

Reid also cited “women, who are very concerned about protecting their rights” to obtain abortions, as benefiting from the 60-vote threshold for legislation.

Responding to a question from the audience, Reid said he is not interested, for now, in any other rules changes.

“Nothing right now, but remember the Senate is an evolving body. We changed the rules 18 times,” he said.

Democrats say the Senate has changed rules with simple-majority votes 18 times in the past 36 years. The last time was in October of 2011, when they voted to prevent Republicans from forcing votes on uncomfortable amendments after the chamber has moved to final passage of a bill.  

Reid has repeatedly noted in recent days that he has faced 420 filibusters since becoming Senate majority leader in 2007.

Senate Democrats and Republicans will hold a rare joint caucus meeting at 6 p.m. on Monday in a last-ditch attempt to avoid the nuclear option. Republicans requested the meeting.

Reid made clear on Monday that Republicans must allow all seven nominees to pass for him to remove his finger from the nuclear trigger.

He said he was not concerned by GOP threats that they will retaliate once they regain the Senate majority by lowering the 60-vote threshold for breaking a filibuster of legislation.

"If they want to change the rules by simple majority, more power to them. I think they would rue the day they did it. They're never going to do that," he said. 

— This story was updated at 1:23 p.m.