By Alexander Bolton - 11/21/13 08:13 PM EST
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the Senate’s leading critic of the Affordable Care Act, denounced a vote Thursday to prohibit filibusters against appellate court nominees as a scheme to save the healthcare law.
“The heart of this action is directed at packing the D.C. Circuit because that is the court that will review the lawless behavior of the Obama administration implementing ObamaCare,” he said.
Cruz said the rule change, which passed Thursday with 50 Democratic votes, “was designed to pack that court with judges that they believe will be a rubber stamp.”
The vote to pass the rules change was 52-48, with the two independents, Sens. Angus King (Maine) and Bernie Sanders (Vt.), voting with the Democrats, and three Democrats voting against the change.
The addition of three Democratic-appointed judges to the 11-seat court would shift its ideological balance, which had been tilted to the right. This could have significant implications for the new healthcare law because the court has primary jurisdiction over many federal regulatory matters.
Other Republican senators also expressed concern that a Democratic bias on the court would make it harder to halt the implementation of ObamaCare.
Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.), the chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, said the next stage of battling the law’s implementation would take place in the D.C. Circuit.
“Lawsuits affecting the healthcare law will go through this court, and if the president is able to pack this court, it’s his effort to try to defend a law the American people don’t like and believe they can’t afford,” he said.
Republicans are planning hearings in the House Judiciary Committee to scrutinize whether Obama has adhered to the Constitution, according to a member of the panel.
Democrats rejected the GOP accusations Thursday. They argued that Republicans are trying to tie the battle over judicial nominees to the Affordable Care Act in an effort to distract attention from their obstructionist tactics.
Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the third-ranking Senate Democratic leader, said Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) “doesn’t want to address the filibusters; he doesn’t want to address the rules changes, so three quarters of his speech is dedicated to ObamaCare.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Democrats were entirely motivated by a desire to break Senate gridlock.
“The changes that we made today will apply equally to both parties. When Republicans are in power, these changes will apply to them as well,” he said. “That’s something both sides should be willing to live with to make Washington work again.”
The Senate voted to change the chamber’s rules to exempt executive and most judicial branch nominees from filibusters, effectively lowering the threshold for confirmation to 51 votes. The modification does not affect Supreme Court nominees.
The change could help Obama implement the law in other ways. It has immediately improved the chances of confirming nominees to the Independent Payment Advisory Board. The 15-member panel, one of the most controversial facets of the law, has responsibility for curbing the cost of Medicare. The administration had little hope for setting up the board before Thursday’s rule change.
The change would also give Obama more flexibility in deciding whether to replace Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, who has received a large portion of blame for the law’s botched rollout.
Prior to this week, any effort to replace Sebelius would have had to contend with the daunting prospect of moving her successor through a contentious Senate confirmation process. Now if Obama picked someone else to take the department’s helm, he or she would have a much better chance of a speedy confirmation.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said he has not even contemplated Sebelius stepping down.
Ten Republican senators, including Sen. Pat Roberts (Kan.), her home-state senator, sent a letter to Obama earlier this month calling for her resignation.