WASHINGTON — After months-long threats and last-minute deals to avoid a major rules change in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid led the chamber in eliminating the 60-vote majority needed to vote on most presidential nominations.
The vote began at a little past noon, with 52 Democrats voting to eliminate the 60-vote threshold needed to invoke cloture and avoid a filibuster — a threshold that Democrats said has kept too many of President Obama's nominees from a final vote in the Senate.
Democratic Sens. Carl Levin, Joe Manchin and Mark Pryor voted against the rule change. No Republicans voted for the change.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, the chair of the Judiciary Committee, was presiding over the Senate and announced the ruling of the chair that, following the vote, a simple majority vote is sufficient for all nominations other than those to the Supreme Court.
"The change made today guarantees that all judicial and executive branch nominees, except Supreme Court nominees, can be confirmed with simple up-or-down votes. This change will apply to all future presidents, Democrat or Republican," a memo from Reid's office sent to the media Thursday stated.
Thursday morning's session opened up with Reid declaring that there had been "unbelievable, unprecedented obstruction" on the part of Senate Republicans in blocking President Barack Obama's judicial nominees and cabinet appointments.
"Consistent and unprecedented obstruction by the Republican caucus has turned advise and consent into deny and obstruct. In addition to filibustering a nominee for Secretary of Defense for the first time in history, Senate Republicans also blocked a sitting member of Congress from an administration position for the first time since 1843," Reid said.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell responded by accusing Reid and Senate Democrats of creating a "fake fight" over judicial nominations in order to distract from the problems with the rollout of the health care law.
"Millions of Americans are hurting because of a law Washington Democrats forced upon them, and what do they do about it? They cook up some fake fight over judges, a fake fight over judges that aren't even needed," McConnell said. "Look I get it. As I indicated, I'd want to be talking about something else too."
With practically all the senators on the floor for the leadership remarks — an indication of the seriousness of the pending rules change— Reid then set up a series of procedural votes on the nomination of Patricia Millett for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. The votes would lead to a rules changes, eventually allowing judicial nominations and appointments to pass the Senate with a simple majority vote. It would not apply to Supreme Court nominations.
In recent weeks, Reid has ordered votes on motions to proceed on all three of Obama's pending nominees for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, often considered the second most important court in the country because of the types of cases it hears: Millett, Cornelia Pillard and Robert L. Wilkins. All three votes failed to reach the 60-vote threshold to prevent a filibuster, so the nominations were stalled.
Republican opposition, in large part, has been framed as a lack of need for more judges on the D.C. Circuit, but Democrats have argued that the opposition is more simply based in the desire of Republicans to keep Obama from appointing more judges to the influential court.
Democrats, led by Reid and Sen. Jeff Merkley, have been pushing back into debate the question of amending the Senate rules through a majority vote in order to stop the ability of the minority party to block nominees through a filibuster. This so-called "nuclear option" last was seriously considered in 2005 when Republicans controlled the Senate and President George W. Bush's nominees were being held up by Democrats.
In that instance, the imposition of the rule-change option was put at bay by the "Gang of 14" senators, equally divided between the parties, who agreed to allow some of 10 stalled nominees through but also agreed to allow the filibuster rule to stand so long as nominees were only filibustered for "extraordinary circumstances" — an undefined phrase that has led to much debate in the eight years since.
McConnell also warned that Democrats could come to regret the rules change should they find themselves in the minority someday.
"I realize this sort of wishful thinking might appeal to the uninitiated newcomers in the Democratic conference who served exactly zero days in the minority, but those who have been the minority before should know better," he said.
Merkley praised the vote, and said he hoped it would undo some of the "paralysis" in the upper chamber, but said that the Senate should consider rule changes on how the Senate moves legislation as well.
"I have advocated that we need to get rid of the filibuster on the motion to proceed. We cant even get on to important legislation…I've advocated that we should not have 60 votes to end debate but 41 to extend debate and at least one should be on the floor thereafter making arguments instead of this silent paralysis," he said.
[Update: This story was updated at 12:35 p.m., following the Senate's vote on the rule change.]