Senate Democratic leaders on Thursday moved to fundamentally alter the rules governing the chamber's filibuster rule after Republicans repeatedly rejected President Obama's nominees to the D.C. Circuit Court.
The change, approved 52-48, would prevent the minority party from using the filibuster to stall most presidential nominations, though it would not eliminate the use of the filibuster on Supreme Court nominees or legislation.
Judicial and Executive Branch nominees once needed 60 votes to advance to an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor, giving Republicans an opportunity to block them. Under the rule change, only a simple majority would be needed to advance the nominees, so that Democrats, who control 55 votes, can do so without Republican interference.
"Under the precedent set by the Senate … the threshold for cloture on nominations, not including those of the Supreme Court of the United States, is now a majority," Senate President Pro Tempore Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., announced the Senate approved the change.
The move, which Senators refer to as the "nuclear option," came after Republican senators blockedObama's third attempt to win Senate approval for Patricia Millett, his pick for the D.C. Circuit Court.
The GOP appeared resigned to the change, which had been long been threatened by majority Democrats.
“This rules change charade has gone from being a biennial threat, to an annual threat, to now a quarterly threat," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the Senate floor. "It's become a threat every time Senate Democrats don't get their way."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the rule change was needed to break the chamber's political gridlock over Democratic nominees.
"It’s time to get the Senate working again," Reid said on the Senate floor. "Not for the good of the current Democratic majority or some future Republican majority, but for the good of the country. It’s time to change the Senate, before this institution becomes obsolete."
McConnell argued against the change, particularly the way in which it was accomplished. Rather than requiring a supermajority to change the rules, Democrats voted to do it with a simple majority, requiring just 51 votes.
Republicans charged during the debate that they had approved the vast majority of Obama's judicial nominees and that they have a right as the minority party to object to some of them.
"That's a confirmation rate of 99 percent," McConnell said.
Republicans also accused Democrats of hypocrisy. Senate Democrats had filibustered a string of President Bush's judicial nominees, "and now they want to blow up the rules because Republicans are following a precedent they set themselves," McConnell said.
Some Democrats worry that the rules change could come back to haunt them. They hold a narrow majority in the Senate, but Republicans have a shot in the 2014 elections of taking control of the chamber.
There are 10 competitive Democratic Senate seats up for grabs next year. Republicans need to hold onto all of their seats and win six Democratic seats to claim the majority.
Republicans warned that they believe the rules change by Democrats applies to Supreme Court nominees as well, despite Democratic assurances that the legislation won't affect the high court nominees.
"So they want to have it both ways," McConnell said. "But this sort of gerrymandered vision of the nuclear option is really just wishful thinking."
By the Republican interpretation of the rules change, if the party wins back the Senate and the White House in 2014 and 2016, it could pave the way for an easy confirmation of a conservative Supreme Court nominee.