WASHINGTON (AP) — 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.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., became the latest senior senator to change her mind and announced she would support a rules change. Her remarks added momentum to the Democratic drive, which could climax in a showdown vote as soon as this week.
Reid's and Feinstein's remarks reflect growing Democratic frustration with GOP delaying tactics, and edged Democrats closer to using their 55-45 Senate advantage to muscle through parliamentary changes making it harder for minority parties to use filibusters to block presidential appointments.
They 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.
Democrats are considering requiring just 51 votes to end filibusters against nominees for Cabinet secretaries and other top agency jobs, and for judgeships below the level of Supreme Court justices. That would include nominees to the D.C. Circuit.
A vote on the rule change could occur as soon as this week, said a Senate Democratic aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be identified as the source of the information.
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 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.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., is among those who has warned against rewriting the rules, while Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said he remained undecided. Both were elected in 1978 and are retiring from the Senate in 2015.
Nonetheless, Reid has been winning growing support among Democrats for such a change.
On Tuesday, Feinstein, now in her fifth six-year term, said she 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.
Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper contributed to this report.