Landmark Senate vote limits filibusters

Jeremy W. Peters
Dennis Flaherty | Digital Vision | Getty Images

The Senate voted on Thursday to eliminate the use of the filibuster against most presidential nominees, a move that will break the Republican blockade of President Obama's picks to cabinet posts and the federal judiciary. The change is the most fundamental shift in the way the Senate functions in more than a generation.

The vote was one that members of both parties had threatened for the better part of a decade, but had always stopped short of carrying out. This time, with little left of the bipartisan spirit that helped seal compromises on filibuster rule changes in the past, there was no last-minute deal to be struck.

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The vote was 52 to 48.

Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, set the change in motion on Thursday with a series of procedural steps.

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"The need for change is so, so very obvious. It is clearly visible," Mr. Reid said as the Senate convened Thursday morning. "It is time to get the Senate working."

After the vote, Mr. Reid said he would not gloat. "This is not a time for celebration," he said.

On that, but little else, Republicans agreed. Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said the changes marked a "devastating" breach of Senate procedure.

"Now there are no rules in the United States Senate," he said.

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Mr. Obama applauded the move to end what he called "an unprecedented pattern of obstruction" of his judicial and cabinet nominees by Republicans.

"I realize that neither party has been blameless for these tactics. They developed over the years," Mr. Obama told reporters at the White House. "But today's pattern of obstruction, it just isn't normal. It's not what our founders envisioned.

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A deliberate and determined effort to obstruct everything, no matter what the merits, just to refight the results of an election is not normal, and for the sake of future generations we can't let it become normal."

Like Democratic leaders in the Senate, Mr. Obama, a former senator himself, declined to characterize the rules change as a victory to be celebrated. Instead, he argued that it was a necessary move, made reluctantly, to help fix a broken system that had blocked or threatened not only nominees to the courts and his administration but also legislation on jobs initiatives, gun violence, immigration changes and women's rights.

The rule would allow a majority vote to confirm judicial and executive nominees short of the Supreme Court.

Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, denounced Democrats for trying to "break the rules to change the rules" as a way to distract the public from the president's political problems over his health care law.

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"You think this is in the best interest of the United States Senate and the American people?" Mr. McConnell asked, 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."

The gravity of the situation was reflected in a highly unusual scene on the Senate floor: Nearly all 100 senators were in their seats, rapt as their two leaders debated.

Tensions between the two parties have reached a boiling point in the last few weeks as Republicans repeatedly filibustered Mr. Obama's picks to the country's most important appeals court, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The Senate has voted on three nominees to the court in the last month. Republicans have blocked them all, saying they would allow the president no more appointments to that court.

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Democrats, who filibustered their own share of Republican judicial nominees before they took control of the Senate, have said that what the minority party has done is to effectively rewrite the law by requiring a 60-vote supermajority threshold for high-level presidential appointments. Once rare, filibusters of high-level nominees are now routine.

With the appeals court left with a bench of just eight full-time judges — there are 11 full-time seats — Democrats argue that Republicans are denying Mr. Obama his constitutional powers to appoint judges and reshaping the nature of the federal judiciary.

The filibuster changes, approved with just a simple majority under a procedural move so contentious it is known as the nuclear option, do not affect Supreme Court nominees. They would also not affect legislation, which would still be subject to a 60-vote threshold if filibustered.

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The impact of the Senate's move was almost immediately evident on Thursday, as Democrats moved forward on the nomination of one of the court nominees whom Republicans had recently rejected. By 55 to 43, the Senate voted to cut off debate on the nomination of Patricia Millett, a Washington lawyer who has worked in both Democratic and Republican administrations.

Democrats are expected to start approving the two remaining appeals court judges after the Senate returns from its Thanksgiving recess.

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