U.S. Senate goes ‘nuclear,’ changes filibuster rules.
WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., pushed through a controversial change to Senate rules Thursday that will make it easier to approve President Obama’s nominees but threatens to further divide an already polarized Congress.
Fifty-two Senate Democrats and independents voted to weaken the power of the filibuster. The change reduces the threshold from 60 votes to 51 votes for Senate approval of executive and judicial nominees against unanimous GOP opposition. Three Democrats — Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Carl Levin of Michigan — opposed the change.
The rule change does not apply to Supreme Court nominees, who are still subject to a 60-vote filibuster threshold, or to legislation.
“The American people believe Congress is broken. The American people believe the Senate is broken. And I believe they are right,” Reid said Thursday on the Senate floor. “The need for change is so very, very obvious.”
The turning point in the decades-long debate over Senate filibuster rules was Republicans’ decision to block all three of Obama’s latest nominees to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the nation’s second-most-powerful court with vast jurisdiction over federal agencies and regulations.
The court currently has four judges appointed by Republican presidents and four by Democrats, with three vacancies. But six “senior” judges, five of them Republican nominees, tilt the court to the right. Republicans claim no more judges are needed, basing their opposition on workload, not the qualifications of Patricia Millett, Nina Pillard and Robert Wilkins.
“I’ve sat on the Judiciary (Committee) for 20 years and it has never, ever been like this. You reach a point where your frustration just overwhelms and things have to change,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who had previously opposed efforts to change filibuster rules but voted with Reid on Thursday. “I think the level of frustration on the Democratic side has just reached the point where it’s worth the risk.”
Democrats control the Senate 53-45 — and two independents generally side with them — but the majority is at stake in the 2014 elections. Republicans warned that it would not only tear apart cross-party relationships in the Senate, but it will come back to haunt Democrats if they return to the minority. “You will no doubt come to regret this, and you may regret it a lot sooner than you think,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., warned Democrats. McConnell would not comment when asked whether he would maintain the rules change if he were majority leader.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called the decision “foolish” and squarely blamed junior Democratic senators. “There are members that have never been in the minority who have been here a short time who basically drove this,” he said.
Just 22 members of the Democratic caucus were in the Senate before 2006, the last time Republicans were in the majority.
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., an advocate for filibuster changes who was elected in 2008, hailed the change as a vehicle to make Congress more productive. “Americans sent us here to get things done, but in recent years, the minority has filibustered again and again — not to slow action out of substantive concerns, but for political gain. Any president — Democrat or Republican — should be able to make their necessary appointments,” he said.
President Obama and Vice President Biden, both former senators, applauded Reid’s decision. “A deliberate and determined effort to obstruct everything, no matter what the merits, just to re-fight the result of an election is not normal, and for the sake of future generations, we can’t let it become normal,” Obama said Thursday.
The rules change is informally referred to as the “nuclear option” because it blows up long-standing Senate procedure and protection of minority rights. It is the most far-reaching change to filibuster rules since 1975, when senators eased the two-thirds requirement for ending filibusters to today’s three-fifths requirement of 60 votes.
“I think the minority will rue the day that they broke the rules to change the rules,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who said she and a group of bipartisan senators tried unsuccessfully this week to head off Reid’s decision with a compromise on nominations.
Progressive groups cheered Reid’s move. “This was not a decision made easily or taken lightly. There was no choice. The Republican minority had turned the existing rules into weapons of mass obstruction,” said Alliance for Justice President Nan Aron.
Conservative groups said it would undermine minority rights in Congress. “For Harry Reid and President Obama, this is not about a couple circuit court judges; this is an attempt to remake America to reflect their unworkable and unpopular progressive vision,” said Michael Needham of Heritage Action, which urged senators to oppose the rules change if it comes to a vote. “If Reid and his colleagues continue down this path, they will set a precedent that fundamentally alters the role of the minority in American politics.