The partisan battles that have paralyzed Washington in recent years took a historic turn Thursday, as Senate Democrats eliminated filibusters for most presidential nominations, severely curtailing the political leverage of the Republican minority in the Senate and assuring an escalation of partisan warfare.
Saying that “enough is enough,” President Obama welcomed the end of what he called the abuse of the Senate’s advise and consent function, which he said had turned into “a reckless and relentless tool” to grind the gears of government to a halt.
While “neither party has been blameless for these tactics,” Obama said in a statement to reporters at the White House, “today’s pattern of obstruction . . . just isn’t normal; it’s not what our founders envisioned.” He cited filibusters against executive branch appointments and judicial nominees on grounds that he said were based simply on opposition to “the policies that the American people voted for in the last election.”
“This isn’t obstruction on substance, on qualifications,” he said. “It’s just to gum up the works.”
Infuriated by what he sees as a pattern of obstruction and delay over Obama’s nominees, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid, a Democrat from Nevada triggered the so-called “nuclear option” by proposing a motion to reconsider the nomination of Patricia Millett, one of the judicial nominees whom Republicans recently blocked by a filibuster, to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
The rule change means that federal judge nominees and executive-office appointments can advance to confirmation votes by a simple majority of senators, rather than the 60-vote supermajority that has long been required to end debate and proceed to an up-or-down majority vote to confirm or reject the nomination.
The change does not apply to Supreme Court nominations. But the vote, mostly along party lines, dramatically alters the landscape for both Democratic and Republican presidents, especially if their own political party holds a majority of, but fewer than 60, Senate seats.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., accused Democrats of a power grab and suggested that they will regret their decision if Republicans regain control of the chamber.
“We’re not interested in having a gun put to our head any longer,” McConnell said. “Some of us have been around here long enough to know that the shoe is sometimes on the other foot.” McConnell then addressed Democrats directly, saying: “You may regret this a lot sooner than you think.”
He added later: “The solution to this problem is at the ballot box. We look forward to having a great election in 2014.”
In his remarks at the White House, Obama called the use of the filibuster over the five years of his tenure “an unprecedented pattern of obstruction in Congress that’s prevented too much of the American people’s business from getting done.” Saying that the tactic has blocked bipartisan compromises, prevented qualified people from filling critical posts and stymied legislation to create jobs and limit gun violence, he said: “It’s harmed our economy, and it’s been harmful to our democracy.”
“A deliberate and determined effort to obstruct everything, no matter what the merits, just to refight the result of an election is not normal, and for the sake of future generations, we can’t let it become normal,” Obama said.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., was quick to denounce the move. She called Reid’s actions “a raw abuse of power” that would “destroy the very checks and balances our founding fathers put in place to prevent absolute power by any one branch of government.
“The Democrats’ vote to invoke the ‘nuclear option’ and fundamentally change the rules of the Senate is a raw power grab which is deeply disappointing. Like the manner in which they rammed through Obamacare on party line votes, they have now broken the rules of the Senate to allow them to do the same for the President’s executive and judicial nominees.At a time when Americans want members of both parties to be working together, this partisan power play will only further inflame the partisan divide in Washington.”
Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, warned Democrats against the rule change on Wednesday, saying that if the GOP reclaimed the Senate majority, Republicans would further alter the rules to include Supreme Court nominees, so that Democrats could not filibuster a Republican pick for the nation’s highest court.
Reacting to Republican criticism after the vote, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, called the move “a huge step in the right direction” and denied that it somehow broke Senate rules.
The dispute has been brewing for years between Democrats and Republicans.
“The Senate broke no rules,” he said in a floor speech. “We simply used the rules to make sure that the Senate could function and that we could get our nominees through.”
The vote to change the rule passed 52 to 48. Three Democrats — Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan, Joe Manchin III of W.Virginia and Mark Pryor of Arkansas — joined 45 Republicans in opposing the measure. Levin is a longtime senator who remembers well the years when Democratic filibusters blocked nominees of Republican presidents; Manchin and Pryor come from Republican-leaning states.
Levin denounced both Republicans and Democrats in a floor speech after the vote. He said GOP obstruction of Obama’s nominees has been “irresponsible” and “partisan gamesmanship.” Republicans “are contributing to the destruction of an important check against majority overreach,” he said.
But Democrats have used the filibuster in the past, and “changing the rules by fiat” means that “there are no rules” in the Senate any longer,” he said. “Today we are once again moving down a destructive path,” Levin said.
Infuriated by what he sees as a pattern of obstruction and delay over Obama’s nominees, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) triggered the so-called “nuclear option” by proposing a motion to reconsider the nomination of Patricia Millett, one of the judicial nominees whom Republicans recently blocked by a filibuster, to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
The Senate voted 57 to 40, with three abstentions, to reconsider Millett’s nomination. Several procedural votes followed. The Senate parliamentarian, speaking through Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the chamber’s president pro tempore, then ruled that 60 votes are needed to cut off a filibuster and move to a final confirmation vote. Reid appealed that ruling, asking senators to decide whether it should stand.
The Democratic victory paved the way for the confirmation of Millett and two other nominees to the D.C. appeals court. All have recently been stymied by GOP filibusters, amid Republican assertions that the critical appellate court simply did not need any more judges.
Under its new rules, the Senate subsequently voted 55 to 43 Thursday afternoon to move ahead with Millett’s nomination. Two senators voted present.
Senate rules still require up to 30 hours of debate on the Millett nomination. So a final confirmation vote on the nomination is expected to be held in mid-December after the two-week Thanksgiving recess.
What the change means
Many Senate majorities have thought about using this technical maneuver to get around centuries of parliamentary precedent, but none has done so in a unilateral move on a major change of rules or precedents. This simple-majority vote has been executed in the past to change relatively minor precedents involving how to handle amendments; for example, one such change short-circuited the number of filibusters that the minority party could deploy on nominations.
Reid has rattled his saber on the filibuster rules at least three other times in the past three years, yielding each time to a bipartisan compromise brokered by the chamber’s elder statesmen. But this time, no deal emerged.
The main protagonists for the rules change have been junior Democrats elected in the last six or seven years, who have alleged that Republicans have used the arcane filibuster rules to create a procedural logjam that has left the Senate deadlocked. Upon arriving in 2009, Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) said, he found that “the Senate was a graveyard for good ideas.”
As he recounted in a speech this week, Udall said, “I am sorry to say that little has changed. The digging continues.”