By Alexander Bolton - 11/21/13 02:20 PM EST
The Senate voted Thursday to change its rules to prevent the minority party from filibustering any nominations other than nods to the Supreme Court.
The change was approved after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) triggered the “nuclear option,” which allows a change to Senate rules by majority vote.
The 52-48 vote dramatically changes the rules of the Senate and limits the minority party's ability to prevent confirmation of presidential nominees. Sens. Carl Levin (Mich.), Mark Pryor (Ark.) and Joe Manchin (W.Va.) were the only Democrats to vote against Reid's rules change.
Obama praised the action.
“The gears of government have to work and the step that a majority of senators took today I think will help make those gears work just a little bit better,” he said in a statement from the White House briefing room.
Reid said the change was necessary to get the Senate working again.
“It’s time to change the Senate before this institution becomes obsolete,” Reid said on the Senate floor.
“The American people believe Congress is broken. The American people believe the Senate is broken. And I agree.”
The procedural motion is known as the nuclear option because critics warn it would obliterate bipartisan relations in the Senate. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) ripped Reid for triggering it.
McConnell accused Democrats of picking a “fake fight over judges” to try and “distract the public” from the problems of ObamaCare.
“It only reinforces the narrative of party willing to do or say just about anything to get its way,” said McConnell. “One again, Democrats are threatening to break the rules of the Senate ... in order to change the rules of the Senate,” he said.
“And over what? Over a court that doesn’t have enough work to do.”
After the vote, McConnell declined to comment on the prospect of Republican retaliation.
“I don’t think this is the time to be talking about reprisals. I think it’s a time to be sad about what’s been done to the United States Senate,” he said.
The specific procedural vote to change the Senate's rules was to sustain the ruling of the chair that nominees need 60 votes to advance to final passage.
Democrats voted against sustaining the ruling of the chair and in favor of changing the Senate's rules. The final vote was 48-52.
In his floor comments, Reid said the filibuster had rendered the Senate’s basic duty of confirming presidential nominees “completely unworkable.”
“The need for change is so, so very obvious,” he said.
“These nominees deserve at least an up-or-down vote, but Republican filibusters deny them a fair vote, any vote, and deny the president his team.”
The two parties have effectively changed sides on the nuclear option since Democrats gained control of the upper chamber in the 2006 election.
Republicans accused Democrats of hypocrisy for embracing a controversial tactic they criticized in 2005, when Republicans threatened to go nuclear to move then-President George W. Bush’s stalled nominees.
“To change the rules in the Senate can't be done by a simple majority. It can only be done if there is extended debate by 67 votes,” Reid said in May of 2005.
“They are talking about doing something illegal. They are talking about breaking the rules to change the rules, and that is not appropriate. That is not fair, and it is not right,” he said in April of that year.
But Democrats countered that McConnell was ready to vote for it when then-Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) wanted to strip the minority of the power to filibuster eight years ago.
The dispute that triggered the rules change was over three of President Obama’s nominees to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, the second-most-powerful court in the nation.
Republicans have blocked the nominations of Patricia Millett, an appellate litigator; Cornelia Pillard, a Georgetown Law School professor; and Robert Wilkins, a judge on the District Court for the District of Columbia.
Reid said Republicans floated a last-minute deal by offering to confirm one of the D.C. Circuit nominees to avoid the rules change.
The Senate voted 55 to 43 immediately after the rules change to end a filibuster of Millett.
Reid proposed scheduling a final vote on her nomination after the Thanksgiving recess if Republicans agreed to speed up consideration of the defense authorization bill.
Reid had come under growing pressure from his conference to use the nuclear option to fill the court's vacancies.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), an outspoken proponent of rules reform, circulated a memo to the media Thursday morning defending the tactic.
He noted that then-Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) used it on March 5, 1980, when he eliminated filibusters on motions to proceed to nominations.
He argued the Senate has changed its procedures by a simple majority vote at least 18 times since 1977.
“The notion that changing Senate procedure with a simple majority vote is ‘changing the rules by breaking the rules’ is false,” he wrote.
— This story was posted at 10:22 a.m. and updated at 2:20 p.m.