Senate Democrats triggered the “nuclear option” Thursday, using a shortcut to undercut the chamber’s filibuster rules and giving President Obama a clear path to stack the federal judiciary with ideological allies.
In a tense 52-48 vote, Democrats overturned decades of precedent and reduced the number of votes needed to cut off the filibuster of a nominee from 60 to a simple majority — and in the process tinkering with a tool that has made the Senate unique.
Republicans were hinting at retaliation and said the move further poisoned the atmosphere on Capitol Hill.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said he didn’t fear retaliation. He said he reached a tipping point after Republicans filibustered three of Mr. Obama’s nominees to serve on the federal appeals court in Washington, which is considered the second most important court in the country because it hears cases involving key federal agencies.
Indeed, it was a vote many of them — particularly the newer Democratic members — have been anticipating. Frustrated by Republicans’ repeated ability to thwart Mr. Obama through the filibuster, they have been pushing Mr. Reid to limit filibusters of nominees and legislation.
The action, however, limits filibusters to nominees and doesn’t apply to Supreme Court picks, which Democrats deemed important enough to be subject to a 60-vote threshold.
Indeed, hours after the rules change, Republicans and Democrats filibustered the annual defense policy bill, saying they wanted to extend the debate to make sure their amendments get fair consideration.
Thirty-two senators, more than half of the 52 who voted for the rule change, have never served in a Republican-majority Senate. Of those, 11 took office in January and have not served for even a year in the chamber.
“They don’t know what it’s like to be in the minority, so they want to have a majority that will ride roughshod over the wishes and views and input of the minority,” Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, told reporters.
“Now because of the partisanship and the new people who have never been in the minority, we are proving one thing, and that is, if the majority only can change the rules, then there are no rules,” Mr. McCain said. “That’s the lesson here.”
The level of partisanship Thursday seemed to remain. Despite the heated floor speeches, Republicans and Democrats chatted amicably with one another on the floor, and the top lawmakers on various committees were talking through details.
At the White House, President Obama welcomed the change. As a senator, he regularly participated in filibusters, including when Democrats pioneered the blockade of judicial nominees under President George W. Bush.