WASHINGTON — The Democratic-led U.S. Senate on Thursday enacted a major change to its rules, paving the way to allow a simple majority to confirm nominees for executive branch jobs and most judicial posts.
The Senate voted 52-48 on a procedural issue that effectively ends the requirement that at least 60 votes are needed to advance nominations, except for those to the U.S. Supreme Court. The new benchmark will be 51, a simple majority of senators.
Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, voted for the change. Republican Susan Collins voted against it.
King and Collins voted the same way on an appeal by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to overturn the original vote.
In a statement released after the vote, King said he’s seen abuse of the filibuster grow during his first 11 months in the Senate. He said Thursday’s vote aligned Senate rules more closely with what he believes to be the intent of the Constitution.
“My support of the rule change was not an easy decision to reach, but it reflects my belief that these nominees deserve an up-or-down vote by the Senate, regardless of which party is in the majority or which party controls the White House, and that a structural adjustment was necessary in order for that to occur and for the Senate to function better as an institution,” he said. “It is important to underscore that this change still preserves protections for the minority in the consideration of legislation, and only modifies the filibuster as it pertains to judicial and executive nominations, excluding those to the Supreme Court.”
Collins disagreed, saying in a statement that the filibuster rules overturned by the Senate on Thursday protected the rights of the minority and that the vote removed important checks and balances in the way the Senate deliberates.
“Over the years, there have been abuses of the filibuster on both sides of the aisle, and I have consistently worked to protect the rights of the minority whether I was serving in the minority or the majority,” she said in a prepared statement, noting that she opposed a GOP effort to alter filibuster rules in 2005.
“I am extremely disappointed in today’s vote, which will fundamentally change the Senate,” Collins said. “It will only produce further partisanship and discourage efforts to forge consensus on the many difficult issues facing our nation.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Thursday that since the nation was founded, half of the 168 nominees delayed in the Senate using the procedure were selections of President Barack Obama.
“Is there anything fair about that?” Reid said before lawmakers began debating the changes. “The American people believe the Senate is broken, and I believe the American people are right.”
Reid invoked what has been described as the nuclear option. The revision is limited to executive branch and lower-court nominations and wouldn’t apply to legislation, Reid said.
The Senate is “burning wasted hours and wasted days between filibusters,” Reid said. “Today, Democrats and independents are saying ‘enough is enough.’”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Thursday he tried and failed Wednesday to work out an agreement with Reid to avoid changing the rules.
Democratic support for procedural changes gained momentum this week after a third consecutive Obama nominee for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit fell short of the 60 votes needed to advance. Democrats control 55 of the chamber’s 100 seats.
McConnell said on the floor Thursday that Democrats are “cooking up a fake fight over judges” to distract from flaws in the rollout of Obama’s health care law, known as Obamacare, and “it won’t work.”
“Rather than distract from Obamacare, it only reinforces the narrative of a party that is willing to do or say just about anything to get its way,” said McConnell.
Democrats are incensed with Republican moves to block Obama nominees, including Rep. Mel Watt, a North Carolina Democrat tapped to head the federal agency that oversees government-chartered mortgage finance companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
The rejection of Watt’s nomination last month — the first time a sitting member of Congress had been denied confirmation in more than 150 years — has led to pressure for Reid to push for altering the rules.
McCain, who brokered an 11th-hour deal in July to avoid a similar showdown over nominees, told reporters his talks with Reid have been suspended after the discussions failed to yield a compromise.
“I’ve been working night and day for the last several days and so far had no success,” McCain said of his meetings with Reid. “I think he’s made his decision, and — at least in the short-term — I don’t see it changing.”
McCain said the change in rules would “strain relations enormously” on other legislation and nominees.
“They have used the majority to change the rules, and therefore, there are no rules,” McCain said. “I think it’s a sad day for the Senate.”
Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., said the move “diminishes the power of the Senate to join with the executive in making certain decisions that are unique to our government.”
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., made the case Wednesday on the Senate floor for employing the “nuclear option” to change the rules through a simple majority vote to limit opponents’ power to block nominees.
“It is time to end the block-and-destroy strategy being employed by the minority,” he said.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., pressed lawmakers to oppose any rules change, which he called a “raw exercise of political power,” Bloomberg BNA reported.
A revision would transform the Senate “into an institution where the home team can cheat to win the game,” Alexander said on the Senate floor.
John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, said “back-channel discussions” were held yesterday aimed at averting a showdown over the rules. He said he isn’t involved in the talks and didn’t offer details.
It takes 60 votes to end the minority-party delaying tactic known as a filibuster, and a change in the rules for ending filibusters wouldn’t be a first. In 1975, senators reduced the number of votes needed to end the obstruction tactic from 67 to the current 60.
A three-month truce between the parties on nominations unraveled amid opposition by Republicans to Obama’s picks for the D.C. Circuit — often regarded as the nation’s second- highest after the Supreme Court.
On Oct. 31, Republicans blocked confirmation of Washington lawyer Patricia Millett for a vacancy on the court. On Nov. 12, they blocked Georgetown University law professor Nina Pillard’s nomination to another vacancy on the same court. And on Nov. 18, the nomination of U.S. District Judge Robert L. Wilkins fell short of the required 60-vote margin.
Reid criticized Republicans for moving Oct. 31 to block Watt’s nomination, saying they did so because they oppose the law Congress enacted to regulate financial institutions following the 2008 financial crisis.
Republicans have accused Obama of trying to fill the court — which often rules on challenges to government regulations — with nominees sympathetic to his agenda. Democrats say that Republicans are trying to deny Obama the confirmation votes they routinely gave to President George W. Bush.
During almost five years in office, Obama has placed only a single judge, Sri Srinivasan, on the D.C. Circuit. Srinivasan was confirmed in May after Obama’s first nominee, Caitlin Halligan, was blocked by Senate Republicans. They objected to Halligan’s work as New York state’s solicitor general on a lawsuit against handgun manufacturers.
Reid said Nov. 19 that he wouldn’t accept anything short of having all of the latest D.C. Circuit nominees approved.
“I insist on getting all three,” he said. “Any president, not just President Obama, Democrat or Republican, needs to be able to have the team that he wants in place.”
With assistance from Michael Shepard, Laura Litvan and James Rowley in Washington.