The Democratic-controlled Senate on Thursday changed its long-standing rules to strip the Republican minority of its filibuster power to block many presidential nominations, making it easier to confirm President Barack Obama’s appointees but increasing partisan tensions in an already acrimonious chamber.
After threatening to do so for months, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., pulled the trigger on the so-called “nuclear option,” a series of procedural maneuvers to change Senate rules from requiring a 60-vote threshold for nominees.
With a 52-48 vote, the Senate agreed to consider all executive branch and judicial nominees, expect for Supreme Court picks, under a majority-rules system. The Senate has 53 Democrats, 45 Republicans and two independents who caucus and usually vote with Democrats.
Three Democrats – Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Carl Levin of Michigan and Mark Pryor of Arkansas – joined all 45 Republicans in opposing the change.
Obama hailed Reid for ending “an unprecedented pattern of obstruction in Congress that’s prevented too much of the American people’s business from getting done.”
“Enough is enough. The American people’s business is far too important to keep falling prey to Washington politics,” the president said at the White House. “A deliberate . . . effort to obstruct everything no matter the merits, just to re-fight the results of an election, is not normal.”
Obama had a different opinion when he was in the minority himself in a Republican-led Senate and Republican George W. Bush was in the White House.
“If the majority chooses to end the filibuster, if they choose to change the rules and put an end to democratic debate, “ he said in 2005, “then the fighting, the bitterness and the gridlock will only get worse.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest pushed back on any talk of a flip-flop, saying circumstances have changed for the worse since 2005. He said there were 59 judicial vacancies when Obama took office. Now, he said, there are 93.
“That is an indication of how this filibuster situation has gotten out of control,” Earnest said. “And it’s why the president is pleased that Sen. Reid has taken the steps that he’s taken today to make this process more efficient.”
By invoking the nuclear option, Reid also reversed himself on the importance of the filibuster to the minority party. He opposed the option when then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., toyed with it in 2006.
“A filibuster is the minority’s way of not allowing the majority to shut off debate, and without robust debate, the Senate’s crippled,” Reid wrote in his book “The Good Fight: Hard Lessons From Searchlight to Washington.”
Reid triggered the option by asking the Senate to reconsider the nomination of Patricia Millett to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, one of three judicial nominees recently blocked by filibusters. In the first test of the new rules, the senators voted 55-43 to advance Millett’s nomination. The Senate will do that when it returns from its Thanksgiving recess.
Reid said he had no choice after Republicans blocked the three D.C. circuit court picks and the nomination of Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency. The filibuster of Watt was the first of a sitting member of Congress since 1843.
“It’s time to change the Senate before this institution becomes obsolete.” Reid said on the Senate floor as senators sat at their desks listening attentively. “The American people – Democrats, Republicans, independents – are fed up with this gridlock, this obstruction.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., blasted Reid, accusing him of trying to “break the rules to change the rules” and waging a naked power grab to push through Obama’s agenda and nominees.
McConnell and other Senate Republicans likened Thursday’s action to the way Democrats in the Senate and House of Representatives pushed the Affordable Care Act through both chambers for Obama to sign into law.
“He may have just as well have said, ‘If you like the rules of the Senate, you can keep them,’ ” a smiling McConnell said, paraphrasing Obama’s broken promise on the health care law.
Reid and McConnell accused each other of reneging on an agreement they forged last July and a vow they made last January on nominations. Reid said Republicans broke that vow when they initially blocked the nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., to be the defense secretary. Hagel was eventually confirmed.
McConnell asserted that Reid and other Democrats were simply itching for a fight and had used the court nominations to wage one. Republicans objected to the nominations because they maintain that the three slots on the court aren’t needed because of the court’s caseload.
“They cook up some fake fight over judges that aren’t even needed,” McConnell said.
Senate Republicans – and Democrat Levin – warned that there’ll be dire consequences for amending the Senate rules.
“Majorities are fickle. Majorities are fleeting. Here today, gone tomorrow,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. “So they have chosen to take us down this path. The silver lining is that there will come a day when the roles are reversed.”
But Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said he hoped that Reid would go farther to prevent senators from holding up legislation.
“We just had the spectacle of a bill that I reported out of committee – unanimous, Republicans and Democrats,” Harkin said. “Passed the floor of the House unanimously. Comes to the Senate. One senator held it up for 10 days. Should one senator be able to stop things around here like that?”
Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the center-right American Enterprise Institute, said Reid had no choice but to seek the change.
“If Reid did not do this now, he’d have problems later on with other judges,” Ornstein said.
But the move might change the dynamic of the Senate. A place that depends on comity and hundreds of years of unwritten rules might change dramatically, according to Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political science professor.
“Whether the Senate turns into a Superfund site depends on the Republicans,” Baker said. “The Democrats will get the three nominees. It’ll make the Senate a much tougher place to do business.”