Senate Democrats on Thursday used the so-called "nuclear option" to change the chamber's long-standing rules and eliminate filibusters of presidential nominees, in a move that could further erode whatever cooperative mood was left in Washington.
Republicans feverishly objected, warning Democrats that the chain reaction they set in motion would fundamentally change the Senate, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the GOP forced his hand over the last month by blocking three of President Obama's nominees to sit on the federal appeals court in Washington.
"It's time to change. It's time to change the Senate before this institution becomes obsolete," Mr. Reid said as he laid the groundwork for the move at the beginning of Thursday's session.
The key vote to change the rules came just after noon. On a 52-48 tally, Democrats voted to change the precedents of the Senate and disallow filibusters of all nominations except those for the Supreme Court. Three Democrats voted with Republicans against the rules change, signaling how contentious the matter was even within the majority party.
Republicans immediately moved to expand the change to include Supreme Court nominees, vowing that they would use Democrats' new rules to push through their own picks to the high court the next time a Republican wins the White House. Democrats defeated that bid, but the GOP move signals a willingness to retaliate the next time it is in a position to do so.
Moments after that, Democrats used the new rules to begin to push through one of the three D.C. appeals court nominees that the GOP had blocked.
The nuclear fight comes as Democrats are reeling from attacks over Obamacare, and seems in part designed to try to find something else to rally their troops. One liberal advocacy group gleefully trumpeted the end-run as the "Reid Rule."
"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," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.
Republicans said there's was little they could do to stop Mr. Reid once the Nevada Democrat, who had repeatedly threatened to take the step, finally pulled the trigger.
"When they don't get everything they want, they resort to breaking the rules like this," said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican.
Mr. Reid's planned move would not apply to bills, but only to filibusters of presidential nominations — though those account for a large chunk of the blockades, since nominations have become a major battleground over Mr. Obama's agenda.
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. Usually, the Senate must change its rules through a two-thirds vote, which is one way the chamber enforces comity — something that sets it apart from the very 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 down to just a simple majority — the same level needed for confirmation.
The chamber will still 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 President George W. Bush's appeals court nominees.
But the GOP 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.
Sen. Mark Pryor, one of the three Democrats to oppose the rules change, said he feared his party had cut off the chances for bipartisanship.
"Today's use of the 'nuclear option' could permanently damage the Senate and have negative ramifications for the American people," he 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."
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