WASHINGTON – After a historic vote by Senate Democrats on Thursday to limit filibusters, President Obama will get a short-term lift for his nominees, judicial and otherwise, but over the immediate horizon, the move could usher in an era of rank partisan warfare beyond even what Americans have seen in the past five years.
The Senate approved the most fundamental alteration of its rules in more than a generation Thursday, ending the minority party’s ability to filibuster most presidential nominees in response to the partisan gridlock that has plagued Congress for much of the Obama administration.
Furious Republicans accused Democrats of a power grab, warning them that they would deeply regret their action if they lose control of the Senate next year and the White House in years to come. Invoking the Founding Fathers and the meaning of the Constitution, Republicans said Democrats were trampling the minority rights the framers intended to protect.
But when the vote was called, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the majority leader who was initially reluctant to force the issue, prevailed 52-48. 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.
Under the change, the Senate will be able to cut off debate on executive and judicial branch nominees with a simple majority rather than rounding up a supermajority of 60 votes. The new precedent established by the Senate on Thursday does not apply to Supreme Court nominations or legislation itself.
The fever is hardly gone, though. The rule change lowered to a simple 51-vote majority the threshold to clear procedural hurdles on the way to the confirmation of judges and executive nominees. But it did nothing to streamline the gantlet that presidential nominees run. Republicans may not be able to muster the votes to block Democrats on procedure, but they can force every nominee to exhaust days of debate between every procedural vote in the Senate book – of which there will be many.
And legislation, at least for now, is still very much subject to the filibuster. On Thursday afternoon, as one Republican after another went to the Senate floor to lament the end of one type of filibuster, they voted against cutting off debate on the annual defense policy bill, a measure that has passed with bipartisan support every year for decades.
“Today’s historic change to Senate rules escalates what is already a hyperpartisan atmosphere in Washington, which is already preventing Congress from addressing our nation’s most significant challenges,” said former Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Republican, and former Rep. Dan Glickman, a Democrat, in a statement from the Bipartisan Policy Center.
The vote represented the culmination of years of frustration over what Democrats denounced as a Republican campaign to stall the machinery of Congress, stymie President Obama’s agenda and block his picks to Cabinet posts and federal judgeships by insisting that virtually everything the Senate approves must be done by a supermajority.
After repeatedly threatening to change the filibuster, Reid decided to follow through when Republicans refused this week to back down from their effort to keep Obama from filling any of three vacancies on the most powerful appeals court in the country.
This was the final straw for some Democratic holdouts against limiting the filibuster, providing Reid with the votes he needed to impose a new confirmation standard certain to reverberate through the Senate for years.
“There has been unbelievable, unprecedented obstruction,” Reid said as he set in motion the steps for the vote Thursday. “The Senate is a living thing, and to survive it must change as it has over the history of this great country. To the average American, adapting the rules to make the Senate work again is just common sense.”
Republicans accused Democrats of irreparably damaging the character of an institution that in many ways still operates as it did in the 19th century and of disregarding the constitutional prerogative of the Senate as a body of “advice and consent” on presidential nominations.
“You think this is in the best interest of the United States Senate and the American people?” asked the Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., sounding incredulous.
“I say to my friends on the other side of the aisle, you’ll regret this. And you may regret it a lot sooner than you think,” he added.
Obama applauded the Senate’s move.
“Today’s pattern of obstruction, it just isn’t normal,” he told reporters.
The changes will apply to all 1,183 executive branch nominations that require Senate confirmation – not just Cabinet positions but hundreds of high- and midlevel federal agency jobs and government board seats.