WASHINGTON - The U.S. Senate could be about to make some historic changes in the way it operates if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., the labor movement, and its allies have their way next week.
Reid has pledged to change Senate rules so President Obama's executive branch nominees can assume their offices despite almost total opposition from Republican senators.
The Senate Majority Leader scheduled votes yesterday for next week on both rules changes and on presidential nominations.
The move by Reid, long called for by labor and its allies, has been called the "nuclear option" because it would establish Senate operating procedures radically different from those now in place. Reid pledged yesterday to lower the votes needed to end a filibuster of an executive branch nominee from 60 to 51 votes. The change in rules could be accomplished with a simple majority vote.
Reid's move comes after four years of unprecedented obstructionism by the Senate GOP with scores of the President's nominations for posts in government and in the courts blocked by a minority of Republican senators.
"Shouldn't presidents be able to have the team they want? That's what it's all about. This is about making Washington work regardless of who's the president," Reid said.
If his plan works and Reid calls for actual votes on nominees, the President's five picks for the National Labor Relations Board are expected to top the list, along with his nomination of top Justice Department official Thomas Perez to the post of Secretary of Labor.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, discussing the fight over filibusters, said the job of senators is "to advise and consent, not defy and extort," as Republican senators have done. "The Constitution does not allow a minority of one house of Congress to hold the other two branches of government hostage."
Trumka discussed the issue at a July 10 meeting at the Center for American Progress where he spoke alongside Kathleen von Eitzen of Battle Creek, Mich.
Von Eitzen is one of a majority of Pandera workers who want to unionize their firm with the Bakery, Confectionery and Tobacco Workers. Without a functioning NLRB, von Eitzen and her co-workers can't seek to start bargaining with Pandera management, despite having won the union representation vote at Pandera more than a year ago by 11 to seven votes.
"Gridlock benefits big business," Trumka said. "It doesn't benefit workers, union or non-union. Our labor law is too weak and too slow, but it's the only labor law we have and the NLRB is the avenue to enforce it." The five-member board now has three members, two of whom are temporary since they are "recess appointees." The president was forced to appoint during a Senate recess because the GOP blocked everything when the Senate was in session.
Ther legitimacy of the recess appointees is being challenged by companies that refuse to follow NLRB directives to recognize union organizing campaigns or bargain with employees who have voted for union representation. A federal court has also ruled the recess appointments as illegitimate and the administration has appealed to the Supreme Court. In the meantime, the board teeters on being unable to function at all.
Approval of the five Obama nominees for a full board by the Senate next week would clear up the entire mess around the NLRB appointments and allow it to carry on with its job of enforcing labor law protections for workers.
Right wingers in the Senate, therefore, are beside themselves with anger over Reid's plan to blow their obstructionist tactics out of the water.
"I do not want Sen. Reid to have written on his tombstone he presided over the end of the United States Senate," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., speaking on the floor of the Senate yesterday. "Yet, if he does what he's threatening to do, that would be what he's remembered for in the history of the country."
"Senate Democrats are gearing up today to make one of the most consequential changes to the United States Senate in the history of our nation. And I guarantee you, it is a decision that, if they actually go through with it, they will live to regret," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Reid told reporters today that he has the 51 votes he needs to make the rules changes. At least one Democrat though, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., says he remains opposed to rules changes. Democrats have a 54-vote majority and can presumably prevail if they lose no more than three of their members. Losing four would create a tie. Ties can only be broken by the Vice President.
There are reports topday that Republicans are now begging Reid for a meeting of the full Senate on Monday ahead of the meeting on rules changes. Reid said it was possible but unlikely that any deal could be reached. "We have to wait and see what the weekend brings. Maybe Republicans will be brought to reality. But the reality is, if they're not willing to be reasonable, we know where we're headed."
Unions, joined by more than 50 other organizations, have been campaigning hard to bring Reid and the Democrats to the point where they are willing to change Senate rules to stop filibusters against President Obama's nominees. The Communications Workers of America has spearheaded a "Give Us 5" campaign to push for a full and fubnction NLRB.
"This is about a bigger issue of preventing agencies that protect the rights of workers and consumers from even being able to function," Trumka said.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who also spoke Wedneday at the Center for American Progress meeting with Trumka and von Eitzen, said filling posts at the NLRB is also a key to economic recovery.
"In this past recession, 80 percent of the jobs that were lost were living wage jobs and only 40 percent of those created are living wage jobs," the senator said. "For workers to be able to share in the vast wealth of this nation, they have to be able to come together and bargain, just as von Eitzen and her colleagues want to do. The NLRB is a key piece of that picture."
Mark Gruenberg has contributed to this story.
Photo: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. AP