In a move that threatened to calcify an already dysfunctional Senate, Democrats on Thursday voted to change chamber precedent, in effect rewriting the rules to ban a work-around Republicans had used to force votes even when the Democrats in the majority didn’t want to hold them.
Things got so heated that all sides agreed they needed a cooling-off period, and they suspended business for the rest of this week, promising to return Tuesday and try to repair what appeared to be lasting damage to the comity and relationships critical to the functioning of the upper chamber.
The move was similar to the “nuclear option” Republicans had threatened to use to end filibusters of then-President George W. Bush’s judicial nominations six years ago, which was averted in a bipartisan deal.
“We have changed the rules of the Senate,” said an angry Sen. Roger Wicker, Mississippi Republican, as he and fellow Republicans excoriated Democrats for using the backdoor method.
The immediate effect was to end a tactic the Republicans had used to force votes on amendments, which returns things to where they stood in the middle of the last decade, before the procedure became common.
But in using the “nuclear option,” Mr. Reid may have opened the door for its more frequent use in the future, including after a possible future Republican takeover of the Senate.
The fight erupted while the chamber was debating a measure, aimed at China, that would punish nations deemed to be manipulating their currency values. Republicans tried to amend that bill to force Democrats to take votes on unrelated, thorny subjects such as President Obama’s jobs bill or another measure to limit foreign aid.
Republicans tried to use the parliamentary tactic of suspending the chamber’s rules to get around Mr. Reid’s blockade on amendments. The tactic, which has become popular in recent years with Republicans in the minority, requires a two-thirds vote to succeed. That makes it almost assured the GOP would lose the vote, but it forces Democrats to have to take a stand on issues they might otherwise prefer to ignore.
Mr. Reid challenged the GOP’s tactic, but the parliamentarian upheld it as allowed under the traditions of the Senate. So Mr. Reid appealed the ruling, and won that vote 51-48, officially overturning the old interpretation and establishing a new precedent that outlaws the tactic.
“I feel very comfortable with what I’ve done,” he told his colleagues afterward.
He said Senate Republicans forced his hand by blocking him at every turn, delaying previously noncontroversial votes on lower-level judges or even on technical corrections to legislation.
“This has got to come to an end. This is not the way to legislate,” he said.
The vote itself was filled with tension, and it even seemed at one point Mr. Reid might lose that vote.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, who had worked on the 1995 compromise that headed off the nuclear option for judicial filibusters, was pleading with Mr. Reid and other Democrats in the well of the chamber, while other senators streamed in to vote.
Many seemed uncertain what they were doing, and several spent time going over the matter with the parliamentarian.
Initially, two Democrats — Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas — joined Republicans in voting against the rules change, and a third, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, seemed poised to follow suit.
But a visibly incensed Mr. Reid found Mr. Pryor on the GOP side of the chamber and, gesturing emphatically at Mr. Pryor, argued his case. Meanwhile, other Democrats pleaded with Mrs. McCaskill.
In the end, both switched their votes to back their party, leaving Mr. Nelson and all 47 Republicans in opposition.