US Democrats rammed through potentially explosive changes to centuries-old Senate rules on Thursday, a move backed by US President Barack Obama, but assailed by furious Republicans as an unprecedented power grab.
The historic move abolishes filibusters on all presidential political nominees, as well as lower-court picks, theoretically ending many of the blocking tactics that Obama said have been used as “a reckless and relentless tool to grind all business to a halt.”
The chamber’s Democratic leadership invoked the move, known in Washington as the “nuclear option,” to erase the procedures that for more than 200 years have required a 60-vote threshold — instead of a simple majority vote in the 100-seat chamber — to cut off debate on a nominee.
The so-called filibuster would remain intact for US Supreme Court nominations and for all legislation, but the move would grease the wheels on stalled nominees, including federal judges.
In a brief statement before reporters at the White House, Obama blasted Republicans for a “deliberate and determined effort to obstruct everything, no matter what the merits, just to re-fight the results of an election.”
He said the step taken by the Senate was important for future presidents “to fulfill his or her constitutional duty.”
“My judicial nominees have waited nearly two-and-a-half times longer to receive Senate votes on the floor than those of [former] president Bush,” he added.
“This isn’t obstruction on substance, on qualifications. It’s just to gum up the works,” Obama said.
Obama noted that in the six decades before he became president, about 20 nominees were filibustered. Since he took office, close to 30 judicial and executive nominees have had their nominations blocked.
Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic leader who pushed the reforms, said that of the 23 District Court judges filibustered in the nation’s 230-year history, 20 have been blocked during Obama’s presidency.
“With today’s vote we declared that we’re on the side of the problem-solvers,” Reid said, adding that the vote was “not a time for celebration,” but serious contemplation.
“When it comes to what’s gone on on the Senate floor, there’s a lot of blame to go around,” he said. “But the obstruction we’ve seen from Republicans against President Obama has reached new heights never dreamed of ... through all the ups and downs we’ve had as a country.”
Some lawmakers worry the move will curtail the influence of the Senate’s minority party and lead to an escalation of partisanship.
Such was the argument apparently employed by Obama himself in April 2005, when as a newly elected senator he urged colleagues not to implement such a change.
“If the majority chooses to end the filibuster, if they choose to change the rules and put an end to democratic debate, then the fighting, the bitterness and the gridlock will only get worse,” Obama said at the time.
Republicans on Thursday warned it would dramatically boost the partisan nature of presidential picks — regardless of which party holds the White House.
“I think you’ll see harder-edged partisan choices and the filter that exists today to kind of weed those folks out is going to be less,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said.