Republicans made holding hostage the confirmation of President Obama's nominees almost routine in the Senate. Obama's seal of approval effectively blacklisted many nominees from Republican consideration. The process meant that highly qualified candidates -- even by some conservatives' own admission -- barely stood a chance of averting a GOP-led filibuster.
That was, until Thursday.
Harry Reid ended the weeks, months – years, really – of unprecedented obstruction with a single knockout punch. Fed up with the state of perpetual political standstill, the Senate majority leader on Thursday followed through on his threats, handing Democrats a desperately needed victory.
“The need for change is so, so very obvious," Reid said on the Senate floor. "It's clearly visible."
He convinced Democrats in the Senate to go nuclear, voting to get rid of a 60-vote requirement to get the president’s nominees confirmed. The move strikes down nearly 225 years of precedent and breaks the GOP choke hold on presidential picks.
The Nevada Democrat has lobbed round after round of threats to take action against GOP obstruction, most recently over the summer when 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 around, there were no signs of negotiations -- by either side. Instead, within two days of Reid saying he was considering the rule change, he rounded up the votes and passed the measure rather than enduring another round of Republicans blocking judicial nominees.
As Reid pointed out, in the history of the nation, there have been 168 filibusters of executive and judicial nominations. Of those, an astounding half of those occurred during the Obama administration in the last four-and-a-half years. He delivered withering criticism of the right on the Senate floor, shortly before the vote.
“It is a troubling trend that Republicans are willing to block executive branch nominees even when they have no objection to the qualifications of the nominee,” said Reid. “Instead, they block qualified executive branch nominees to circumvent the legislative process.”
Reid was met with standing ovations after the vote. President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden applauded the Democrats’ decision. Clearly, Democrats were thrilled to show that their knees aren’t weak and spines aren’t wobbly.
“Whatever Obama favors, the GOP opposes. Simple as that…It was time to push the button,” said Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson.
Hardball’s Chris Matthews said the vote represented a big win for progress. “No more dallying around and delay tactics, no more Mickey Mouse. With any luck, there will be action.”
The bold vote comes at an important time. After the rocky rollout of Obamacare, the president’s approval rating has suffered. And the GOP insists that the Democrats’ move is just an attempt to change the conversation from the health care reform law. But the fact remains that the president had little option after 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.
So what will happen next?
The historic vote comes with big risks. Although Democrats are flexing their muscle – and feeling good about what they see – there may be danger ahead. After all, Democrats are setting a precedent by using shrewd political tactics that they may rue when inevitably in the minority again one day.
Gregory Wawro, a political science professor at Columbia University and author of “Filibuster: Obstruction and Lawmaking in the United States Senate,” said there are still many ways that the minority party can cause Senate Dems major headaches, like extending post-cloture debates.
Wawro said if Republicans decide to continue obstructing, Dems (or Republicans in the future if they gain control of the Senate) could employ the nuclear option for legislation or Supreme Court nominations. It could open a Pandora’s box. “Once you do it, it’s not something you can try to undo,” said Wawro.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell echoed that sentiment after the vote, warning Democrats, “You’ll regret this, and you may regret this a lot sooner than you think.”