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.
But Mr. Obama said Republicans’ use of the filibuster is worse.
“It’s no longer used in a responsible way to govern. It’s rather used as a reckless and relentless tool to grind all business to a halt. And that’s not what our founders intended, and it’s certainly not what our country needs right now,” he said.
In the near term, the move will help speed through Mr. Obama’s nominees for chairman of the Federal Reserve and secretary of the Homeland Security Department.
Down the road, the changes could help Mr. Obama win confirmation on some of the more obscure but powerful federal boards that issue rules and decisions that make up much of the work of the federal government.
The timing of the vote struck Republicans as suspicious, particularly because the numbers show that Republicans have not filibustered many of Mr. Obama’s judicial picks.
Indeed, until the most recent push to put judges on the D.C. appeals court, Republicans had helped confirm 215 judges and filibustered just two.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said Democrats are reeling from a disastrous rollout of Obamacare and needed to try to change the headlines.
“There’s a lot of nervousness on the Democrat side. They’re in a panic about Obamacare. The majority leader is desperately trying to change the subject. We want to get back on the subject,” Mr. McConnell said.
Three Democrats voted against the change: Michigan’s Carl Levin, Arkansas’ Mark L. Pryor and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III.
“Today’s use of the ‘nuclear option’ could permanently damage the Senate and have negative ramifications for the American people,” Mr. Pryor said. “During my time in the Senate, I’ve played key roles in the Gang of 14 and other bipartisan coalitions to help us reach common-sense solutions that both sides of the aisle can support. This institution was designed to protect — not stamp out — the voices of the minority.”
Mr. Reid’s move is known as the nuclear option because it requires complex parliamentary procedures and changing the rules in the middle of the session through a simple majority vote. The Senate usually must change its rules through a two-thirds vote, which is one way the chamber enforces comity — something that sets it apart from the partisan House of Representatives.
The new rules don’t technically end the filibuster, but they reduce the vote total needed to cut off a filibuster from 60 to a simple majority — the same level needed for confirmation.
The chamber still will have to abide by the time limits that accompany filibusters, which allow for up to 30 hours of debate once a filibuster has been defeated.
Senate Republicans came close to doing a similar sort of rules change in 2005, when Democrats pioneered the practice of filibustering Mr. Bush’s appeals court nominees.
Republicans backed down when a bipartisan group emerged and settled on a gentleman’s agreement that headed off the rules change but preserved the right to filibuster.