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Marathon meeting yields no deal on Senate rule changes

After an unusual marathon meeting attended by almost all senators, lawmakers said late Monday night that they have not yet reached an agreement to avert a showdown over Senate rules governing the confirmation of executive branch nominees.

‘We’ve had a very good conversation, the conversation is going to continue tonight,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in a brief statement after a meeting that stretched more than three hours.

Senators discussed Reid’s controversial play to modify the rules so that just a simple majority – not a 60 vote threshold – is required for confirmation of executive branch picks: a move that would require a procedural change known as the “nuclear option.”

Reid told reporters that the series of votes on executive nominations that could precede a standoff are still scheduled for Tuesday morning.

A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said after the meeting that talks are still ongoing. 

"A clear bipartisan majority in the meeting believed the Leaders ought to find a solution," said spokesman Don Stewart. "And discussions will continue."

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Before entering the historic Old Senate Chamber, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain told reporters that he planned to present an outline of a possible way to avert the showdown over changing the filibuster rules.

But a Democratic aide said that in advance of the joint caucus meeting, Reid objected to the outlines of McCain’s deal. Congressional sources from both parties said that the White House also rebuffed McCain’s proposal, which would have moved some of the seven contentious nominees forward this week but potentially put action on the others off to another time.

“Senator Reid is calling the shots,” a senior administration official told NBC News, denying that the White House is negotiating with senators. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough came to Capitol Hill Monday to answer questions, the official said, but met with Reid’s staff and not with Reid directly. Congressional sources said McDonough came to discuss other issues, not the rules change.

Some senators hope that the historic setting for the meeting – the Old Senate Chamber, where members conducted business from 1810 until 1859 – will help diffuse the partisan tensions arising from the rules conflict.

Emerging from the room while the meeting was still ongoing, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said there was a desire on both sides to reach a consensus. 

"I think the mood in there is, 'how do we get out of this?'" he said. 

Democrat Sen. Jon Tester added that "the two sides aren't off very far." 

But that optimism from rank-and-file senators wasn't necessarily echoed by leaders after the meeting ended. Reid's statement was terse; Democrat Dick Durbin, his top deputy, said that while the meeting gave senators a chance to air their grievances, there still wasn't a deal. 

The debate centers around seven executive branch nominees -- including Richard Cordray , Obama’s pick to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and new members of the several National Labor Relations Board -- whom Democrats say have been unfairly blocked by Republicans unhappy with the White House.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid speaks about "Ending Senate Gridlock" at the Center for American Progress Action Fund in Washington July 15, 2013. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

If at least six Republican senators do not join the Democrats to reach the 60 votes needed to end debate on the nominations on Tuesday, Reid has pledged to move to change the rules to curtail filibusters on executive nominations. Such a move would allow Democrats to approve the nominations by a simple majority vote.

But if Democrats make the rule change – known as the “nuclear option” – it would almost certainly inflame partisan animosity and lead Republicans to retaliate by further slowing down legislation and perhaps judicial nominations.

“I just think for a period of time, things are going to grind to a halt," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. told reporters in the Capitol, warning of a “very unpleasant kind of environment” if Reid goes through with a rules change.

McCain said he is leading a group of 10 Republican senators who he says are willing to compromise to avert the showdown. Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio is also working on a separate plan to reach a compromise before a planned vote on Cordray’s nomination Tuesday morning.

"There's 10 Republicans right now that are very eager for a compromise and there are senior Democrats who are very eager for a compromise,” McCain said, citing Michigan Democrat Sen. Carl Levin as one of the majority party members fighting a rule change.

Those compromises are likely to involve some middle ground on a major sticking point: Obama’s “recess appointments” of three of his picks early last year.

Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell said Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press that the filibuster impasse now “comes down to three appointments that the federal courts have told us were unconstitutionally recess-appointed” by Obama on Jan 4. 2012. The three that McConnell referred to are Cordray and two of the NLRB nominees, Sharon Block and Richard Griffin.

On Monday, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., suggested there may be sufficient votes to confirm Cordray, but not some of the other nominees. 

Two federal appeals courts have ruled that the Block and Griffin appointments were invalid because the Senate was not in recess when Obama used his recess appointment power to place them on the NLRB. The Supreme Court will hear the NLRB recess appointments case this fall.

Reid reiterated Monday what he had said on the Senate floor last Thursday: If enough senators would vote for cloture on the nominations, then that would be “a good way to stop all this.” He added, “The easiest way to do away with this is simply get rid of these filibusters.”

NBC's Tom Curry and Ali Weinberg contributed to this report.