WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Democrats eased the way for swift
approval of President Barack Obama's current and future nominees on
Thursday, voting unilaterally to overturn decades of Senate precedent and
undermine Republicans' ability to block final votes.
The 52-48 vote to undercut venerable filibuster rules on presidential
appointees capped more than a decade of struggle in which presidents of
both parties complained about delays in confirming appointees,
particularly to the federal courts.
At the White House, Obama applauded the vote. He said Republicans had used
delaying tactics "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," the president said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who launched the effort, accused
Republicans of "unbelievable, unprecedented obstruction" of Obama's
selections to fill court vacancies and other offices.
"It's time to change the Senate, before this institution becomes
obsolete," he said.
His Republican counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, accused
Democrats of exercising raw power and said they would regret it when
political fortunes switched.
He likened the effort to the president's since-discredited promise that
Americans who like their health care can keep it under "Obamacare," noting
that Reid promised last summer he wouldn't seek to change the process for
approving appointees. "He may as well just have said, 'If you like the
rules of the Senate, you can keep them,'" McConnell said.
At issue was a rule that can require a 60-vote majority to assure a
yes-or-no vote on presidential nominees to the courts or to Cabinet
departments or other agencies.
Under a parliamentary maneuver scripted in advance, Democrats led by Reid
sought to change proceedings so that only a simple majority was required
to clear the way for a final vote.
Supreme Court nominations would be exempted from the change and subject to
a traditional filibuster, the term used to describe the 60-vote
requirement to limit debate.
The move was backed by all but three Democrats and opposed by all the
Senate's Republicans. Democratic dissidents were Sens. Carl Levin of
Michigan, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.
Pryor issued a statement saying the Senate "was designed to protect_not
stamp out_the voices of the minority."
The change is the most far-reaching since 1975, when a two-thirds
requirement for cutting off filibusters against legislation and all
nominations was lowered to 60 votes.
It would deliver a major blow to the GOP's ability to thwart Obama in
making appointments, though Republicans have promised the same fate would
await Democrats whenever the GOP recaptures the White House and Senate
It also could adversely affect the level of bipartisan cooperation in the
Senate — a quality already in short supply in an era of divided
The maneuvering occurred after a decade in which first one party, then the
other, nursed a lengthening list of grievances over delays in confirmation
for nominees to the courts.
McConnell noted that Democrats sought to thwart some of President George
W. Bush's conservative appointees, while Democrats say the GOP has done
the same to Obama's appointees.
In a sign that a showdown was imminent, dozens of senators filed in to
listen to Reid and McConnell swap accusations and then cast votes on a
complicated series of parliamentary moves.
Even so, there was no doubt about the outcome, if Reid insisted. Democrats
control 55 seats, compared with 45 for Republicans.
"These nominees deserve at least an up-or-down vote. But Republican
filibusters deny them a fair vote," he said.
To which McConnell noted that the Senate has confirmed 215 of Obama's
picks to the courts since he became president, and rejected two. "That's a
confirmation rate of 99 percent," he said pointedly.
The nominee involved was Patricia Millett, an attorney and one of three
nominees to the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals whose
nomination Republicans have prevented from coming to a final vote.
Few if any complaints have been lodged against the qualifications
possessed by Millett or the other two appointees, District Judge Robert L.
Wilkins and law professor Cornelia Pillard. Instead, Republicans have
argued that there is no need to confirm any of the three because the
court's caseload doesn't warrant it.
"The need for change is obvious," Reid, of Nevada, said in remarks on the
Senate floor. He said that in the nation's history, there have been 168
filibusters against presidential appointees. "Half of them have occurred
during the Obama administration — during the last four and a half years,"
Noting that Democrats have periodically talked of changing the rules in
recent month, he added, "we're not interested in having a gun put to our
head any longer."
It was unclear how quickly Millett might be confirmed.
The clash capped a period of increasing irritation on the part of
"They have decided that their base demands a permanent campaign against
the president and maximum use of every tool available," Sen. Jeff Merkley,
D-Ore., a leading advocate of revamping filibuster rules, said Wednesday
of Republicans. He said that consideration "is trumping the appropriate
exercise of advice and consent" by GOP senators.
The D.C. Circuit Court is viewed as second only to the Supreme Court in
power because it rules on disputes over White House and federal agency
actions. The circuit's eight judges are divided evenly between Democratic
and Republican presidential appointees.
Senior Democrats wary of future GOP retaliation until recently opposed the
move, but growing numbers of them have begun lining up behind Reid's
In addition, two dozen groups, including the AFL-CIO and Sierra Club,
wrote lawmakers Wednesday supporting the change, saying that "rampant,
ideology-based obstructionism is the new norm in the U.S. Senate."
Last summer, Democrats dropped threats to rewrite Senate rules after
Republicans agreed to supply enough votes to end filibusters against
Obama's nominees to the National Labor Relations Board as well as nominees
to head the Environmental Protection Agency, the Labor Department and