Republicans triggered the so-called nuclear option Wednesday, changing the interpretation of Senate rules to speed up the time it takes to confirm presidential appointees and creating a glide path for President Trump to fill out his administration and stack the lower federal courts with conservative judges.
In a pair of 51-48 votes, the Senate lowered the amount of time senators can delay a vote after a filibuster has been surmounted from 30 hours to two hours for district court nominees, and for most executive branch jobs.
Including the time it takes to cast votes, Republicans could confirm 10 or more people in the time it used to take to approve a single judge or assistant secretary.
Republicans said they felt compelled to act after Democrats attempted to filibuster more than 120 nominees in Mr. Trump’s first two years in office, more than the past six presidents combined in their first two years.
“This is the day we end this completely outrageous level of interference and obstruction with this administration,” said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who orchestrated the move and maintained striking unity, losing just two Republicans.
The Senate quickly used the shortened schedule to confirm an assistant secretary at the Commerce Department and set up a vote Thursday morning to approve a district court judge for Florida.
Democrats professed outrage at Republicans’ move — although nearly three dozen of them voted for a nearly identical rules change in 2013, when President Obama was in office.
“This is a very sad day for the Senate,” said Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. “This is a shame, this is a disgrace. This is not the Senate we want.”
He voted for the 2013 rules change — which expired in 2015 — but said things are different now, with Mr. Trump submitting nominations. He said this president’s nominations have been so bad that the Senate needs the extra time to debate each of them.
For Mr. Schumer and fellow Democrats, the fight boiled down to one thing: control of the federal courts. They saw behind Mr. McConnell’s move a strategy to pack the bench with judges who would approve a far-right agenda while blocking liberals’ priorities.
In an unusually personal attack for the chamber floor, Mr. Schumer repeatedly berated Mr. McConnell, saying his “debasement” of the Senate began with supporting far-right judges under President George W. Bush, continued with Mr. McConnell’s blockade of Mr. Obama’s final Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, and has culminated with using the nuclear option twice on judicial nominees.
Mr. McConnell smiled throughout his counterpart’s speech, assured in the power of the Republican majority and of Democrats’ history of abuse of the rules.
“He started this whole thing,” said Mr. McConnell, pointing directly at Mr. Schumer just feet away.
Mr. Schumer was one of the pioneers of politicizing judicial picks and arguing that they should be judged on ideology, not just intellectual qualifications and judicial temperament. Mr. McConnell said Mr. Schumer and a couple of liberal law professors decided to use a filibuster, for the first time ever against a circuit court judge, to block Mr. Bush from appointing a superstar Hispanic lawyer to the appeals court in the District of Columbia.
That 2003 filibuster set a standard that lasted a decade. But in 2013, Democrats, fed up with Republicans following their precedent, used the nuclear option to change the rules and lower the threshold for ending filibusters against nominations from 60 votes to just a majority.
That ended the power to derail a nominee by a partisan filibuster. But when Mr. Trump took office, Mr. Schumer pioneered another tactic — requiring the full 30 hours of debate allowed post-filibuster — to stretch out the process, limiting how many people could be confirmed.
Senators have spent entire weeks of floor time doing nothing other than approving a handful of nominees.
Democrats embraced their role as obstructionists, saying the problem wasn’t their opposition but rather the people Mr. Trump is selecting to serve.
“Pick better nominees, and you’ll get support,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat.
Mr. Wyden also chided Republicans for complaining about obstruction while bragging about having confirmed a record number of circuit court judges for Mr. Trump.
Those picks, as it turns out, would not be affected by Wednesday’s action. Circuit judges, Supreme Court justices and Cabinet-level nominees would all still be subject to up to 30 hours of debate after a filibuster is surmounted.
The nuclear option involves using a parliamentary maneuver to force through a new interpretation of the rules. The maneuver requires only a majority vote, not the two-thirds needed for a full rules change or the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster on a “standing order,” which is a temporary rules change.
Republicans tried the standing order method earlier this week but ran into a Democratic filibuster, which they said left them with no choice but to go nuclear.
The move is dubbed the “nuclear option” because it is radioactive to the cooperation that the Senate usually requires to operate.
When Democrats used it in 2013, Republicans then retaliated by forcing a number of procedural hurdles the Senate usually skips over in nomination votes.
Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, appeared to anticipate payback from Democrats the next time they win back the majority in the Senate.
“I’m sure you’ll see a lot of creativity,” he said.
The frequency of use of the nuclear option — three times this decade — has some analysts predicting that the filibuster, a defining trait of the Senate, is doomed. Politico, a politics publication, blared the headline “The death of the filibuster” in Wednesday’s edition.
Mr. McConnell insisted that is not the case.
“It has always been and must always be the distinctive quality of this institution,” he said.