The odds are in favor of the Senate striking a deal tonight to avoid a showdown over filibuster reform tomorrow; though partisan tensions and in-fighting may still imperil any accord.
The plan for a private session in the U.S. Capitol's Old Senate Chamber at 6:00 p.m. is a promising sign, says a prominent ex-senator familiar with the conversations who estimates a slightly better than 50 percent chance of a deal. Meeting in the historic setting has traditionally been a way to inspire institutional loyalty, a commodity in short supply these days. In recent years, the Senate has met in the Old Chamber before beginning the impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton and after the Sept. 11 attacks. Both times, lawmakers emerged in a more collaborative spirit.
In any deal, the Republicans would have to agree to allow votes on most, if not all, seven Obama appointees whose nominations are being held up. Any agreement isn’t likely to involve any change in Senate rules. In return, Republicans will demand some procedural accommodations from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, such as allowing up-or-down votes on other issues.
Even the Old Senate Chamber will be a difficult environment, as the two party chiefs, Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, genuinely dislike each other and privately rail about their counterpart. There isn't a time in memory when the two Senate leaders harbored such disdain. Moreover, there are tensions within each caucus. Reid and the majority whip, Dick Durbin of Illinois, have a tense relationship, and some of the younger members resent the veteran Nevada leader.
On the Republican side, McConnell is caught between institutional loyalists, such as Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Bob Corker, who want to avoid a bitter showdown, and newer Tea Party types who are itching for a confrontation. McConnell, who has low poll ratings in his home state of Kentucky and is up for re-election next year, is always looking over his right shoulder.
Nevertheless, both sides may calculate that a messy fight will further damage their already historically low approval rating and isn't worth it, former lawmakers speculated today.
The Senate's minority party has never obstructed as many nominees as in the last five years. Almost all the appointments currently being considered would command majority support but are held up by the threat of the filibuster, once used only for momentous issues. The Democrats' case is somewhat weakened because they used the same tactic eight years ago to block President George W. Bush's nomination of John Bolton to be ambassador to the United Nations.
The president is staying out of this fight for the most part. Traditionally, it's dangerous for the executive branch to intervene in internal Congressional disputes. There are rare exceptions, such as the House Rules Committee reforms during the Kennedy administration. Today, however, anything associated with President Barack Obama is toxic to many Congressional Republicans.
(Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)