Sweeping aside a century of precedent, Democrats took a chunk out of the Senate’s hallowed filibuster tradition Thursday and cleared the way for speedy confirmation of controversial appointments made by President Barack Obama and chief executives in the future.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who orchestrated the change, called the 52-48 vote a blow against gridlock. Republicans warned Democrats will eventually regret their actions once political fortunes are reversed and they no longer can block appointments made by a GOP president.
At the White House, Obama welcomed the shift. “The gears of government have got to work,” he said, and he declared that Republicans had increasingly used existing rules “as a reckless and relentless tool to grind all business to a halt.”
But Republicans warned of a power grab by Democrats, some predicting that worse was yet to come. “This drastic move sets a dangerous precedent that could later be expanded to speed passage of expansive and controversial legislation,” said Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama.
The day’s change involved presidential appointees, not legislation — and not Supreme Court nominees.
The immediate impact was to ensure post-Thanksgiving confirmation for Patricia Millett, one of Obama’s three stalled nominees for the District of Columbia Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, and for others whom Republicans have blocked. Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., tapped to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency, is among them.
The longer-term result of the unilateral move by Democrats was harder to gauge in a Senate that has grown deeply constrained by the major political differences emblematic of an era of divided government.
At issue was a rule that has required a 60-vote majority to end debate in the 100-member Senate and assure a yes-or-no vote on presidential nominees to federal courts or to Cabinet departments or other agencies.
Under a parliamentary maneuver scripted in advance, Democrats changed the proceedings so that only a simple majority was required to clear the way for a final vote. In Senate-speak, this was accomplished by establishing a new precedent under the rules, rather than a formal rules change.
Supreme Court nominations still will be subject to a traditional filibuster, the term used to describe the 60-vote requirement to limit debate.
The day’s events capped more than a decade of struggle over judicial nominations, in which first President George W. Bush found his appointees stalled by Senate Democrats, and more recently Obama has complained that Republicans have been delaying or preventing confirmation for his picks.
The vote adds to the list of issues likely to figure in next year’s congressional elections. In a fundraising appeal emailed a few hours after the vote, the Senate Republicans’ campaign organization asked for donations. It warned that “Democrats are going to pack Obama’s liberal judges on the federal courts,” and sought donations to “throw these hacks out of office.”