Democratic Senate Majority Leader from Nevada Harry Reid speaks on negotiations over the Debt Limit Bill in the US Capitol in Washington DC, Oct. 12, 2013.
Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

Senate smacks down filibuster

Updated

After years of Republican obstructionism, Senate Dems have had enough.

The upper chamber of Congress voted on Thursday to deploy the so-called “nuclear option” to change the rules of the Senate. The move now clears the way for Obama’s judicial nominees who were being blocked by Republicans.

On a 48-52 vote, the Democrats voted to officially go nuclear. A “no” vote was a vote to change the rules.

Just three Democrats sided with the Republicans, including Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.

On the Senate floor, Reid said the “need for change is obvious,” pointing to the GOP’s pattern of filibustering on matters that should be routine, like green-lighting judges.

“In the history of the Republic, there have been 168 filibusters of executive and judicial nominations. Half of them have occurred during the Obama Administration – during the last four and a half years,” said Reid.

Before the vote, the Nevada Democrat declared it was time to “change the Senate before this institution becomes obsolete.” 

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called the move “utterly absurd” and accused Democrats of setting up “one set of rules for themselves and another for everybody else.” He told Democrats “you may regret this a lot sooner than you think.”

The vote comes as Senate Republicans blocked – for the third time in three weeks—Obama’s latest pick, Robert Wilkins, to be a judge on the powerful D.C. Court of Appeals.

The filibuster rules will now be overhauled in this Congress so that the continual GOP threat of filibuster doesn’t effectively require 60 votes to confirm judicial and executive nominees. There is still an exception for Supreme Court nominees.

Shortly after the vote, Obama commended the Senate’s action, saying the move was necessary due to the “abuse of arcane procedural tactics.” He said neither party was blameless, but ripped GOPers who have blocked 30 of his nominees. “Enough is enough,” Obama said.

He added: “Over the past five years, we had an unprecedented pattern of obstruction in Congress that has prevented too much of the American people’s business from getting done…Today’s pattern of obstruction isn’t normal. It’s not what our founders envisioned.” 

Over the summer, Reid threatened to go nuclear after Republicans blocked a number of executive nominations, including Richard Cordray as permanent director of the Consumer Financial Protection Board. But Republicans eventually hammered out a deal and approved the nominations in exchange for Democrats agreeing not to alter the rules.

This time was different, however. There was never any deal on the horizon and some Democratic senators like Dianne Feinstein of California and Tom Harkin of Iowa  – who had been holdouts in the past – voted in favor of the nuclear option.

Vice President Joe Biden, who once opposed the rules change when he was senator, said on Thursday that he was now in favor of the nuclear option.

There are clear incentives  – Republicans in the upper chamber could no longer block Obama’s nominees. But there are drawbacks, too. After all, Democrats won’t always hold a Senate majority – they may well lose it next year – and by setting a reformed-filibuster precedent, Dems could find themselves without a key tool when they’re inevitably in the minority again.

Republicans, meanwhile, have argued that the court’s workload does not justify three more judges and said Democrats are merely trying to distract Americans from the troubled rollout of HealthCare.gov.

GOPers warned earlier in the day that if Dems go through with the change, they’ll reciprocate when they have the majority, including for Supreme Court picks.

Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa released a statement saying:  “It appears the Majority Leader is now trying to convince his caucus that somehow he’d be able to change the rules on judicial nominees, but limit the change to only lower court nominees.  This is a difference without a distinction.  If he changes the rules for some judicial nominees, he is effectively changing them for all judicial nominees, including the Supreme Court.”

Perhaps, ironically, the history of the nuclear option traces back to Richard Nixon. When he was vice president in 1957, the Republican argued that the Constitution allows the presiding officer of the Senate to override Senate rules by making a ruling that is then voted on by a simple majority vote.

This post has been updated.

Senate smacks down filibuster

Updated