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Senate Approves Rule Change to Limit Filibusters

Senate Approves Rule Change to Limit Filibusters

By Caitlin Huey-Burns and Alexis Simendinger - November 21, 2013

By a vote of 52-48, the Senate invoked the so-called “nuclear option” to change the historic filibuster rules of the upper chamber. As a result, the minority party will be prevented from filibustering any nominations other than those to the Supreme Court.

"It's time to change the Senate before the institution becomes obsolete,” Majority Leader Harry Reid said Thursday morning on the Senate floor ahead of the unprecedented alteration to centuries-old rules regarding the power of the minority party to contest Senate business.

“The need for change is so, so very obvious,” he said. “It’s manifest [that] we have to do something to change things.”

The new rule means that a simple majority of senators -- instead of the 60-vote super majority that has long been the standard -- can confirm federal judge nominees and executive-office appointments. 

Democrats Carl Levin, Joe Manchin and Mark Pryor voted with 45 Republicans in opposing the measure. 

Citing “an unprecedented pattern of obstruction in Congress that's prevented too much of the American people's business from getting done,” President Obama expressed his approval of the change in remarks made at the White House shortly after the vote.

“Today's pattern of obstruction -- it just isn't normal,” he said. “It's not what our founders envisioned. A deliberate and determined effort to obstruct everything, no matter what the merits, just to refight the result of an election is not normal, and for the sake of future generations, we can't let it become normal."

The president, who opposed a change in the rule when he was a senator, noted a pattern of filibuster usage that has mushroomed during his term in the Oval Office: “Over the six decades before I took office, only 20 presidential nominees to executive positions had to overcome filibusters. In just under five years since I took office, nearly 30 nominees have been treated this way. . . .

“So the vote today I think is an indication that a majority of senators believe, as I believe, that enough is enough.”

Hours after commending the Senate for its action, Obama nominated two attorneys to be U.S. prosecutors, and two to serve as associate judges on the D.C. Superior Court. 

Reid’s move, and the subsequent vote, came after Republicans this month blocked three administration nominees to the D.C. Circuit Court: Robert Wilkins, Nina Pillard and Patricia Millet. Setting in motion the rules change process, Reid called up Millet’s nomination again and a series of procedural votes will follow into the afternoon.

GOP lawmakers argue that filling the three vacancies on the 11-member panel would disrupt the political balance of the influential court, which has produced Supreme Court justices such as John Roberts (whose Circuit Court seat is still one of the vacancies). Currently, four Republicans and four Democrats serve on that court; Republicans also argue that there isn’t enough work to be done to warrant a full panel.

"This is not a very proud day in the history of the Senate,” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters after the vote, noting that he is looking forward to the 2014 midterms: "The solution to this problem is an election." But McConnell wouldn't say whether he would reverse the change if he were to become the majority leader in 2015. Other lawmakers lamented that if the party in power can change the rules, then rules are meaningless. 

Earlier, McConnell accused Democrats of deploying the nuclear option to distract Americans from the flawed rollout of the Affordable Care Act. “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 that aren’t even needed,” he said.

The White House was unwilling to predict how the climate will now shift in the Senate -- the chamber of Congress designed by the framers to enhance the minority’s sway and be “a cooling saucer” for democracy.

The president’s team coordinated with Reid and the Senate Democratic leadership before the vote took place. The talking points in the White House briefing room Thursday substituted “procedural disputes” for the phrase “nuclear option,” in an effort to minimize the institutional drama and play up improved “efficiency” as the result.

A number of questions linger, however: Will the pace of Obama nominations accelerate? Will executive-legislative partisanship only sharpen? Did the filibuster change guarantee more Senate “holds” (a procedural step that allows a senator to keep a motion from reaching the floor for a vote)? Did the Democrats detonate any remaining hopes for Obama’s limping agenda? Did the White House and Senate Democrats fuel the kind of gridlock that will stall U.S. growth, as some Wall Street analysts fear?

White House spokesman Josh Earnest tiptoed around many such questions, telling reporters, “I don’t know what bearing it will have on the pace of nominations. ... The president is not focused on politics right now."

He allowed that "this does raise questions down the line about what Senate procedure is going to look like in future, yes, but I would also acknowledge that we might see … a more congenial, bipartisan Senate [if] there are people who are actually focused on getting important things done.”

Freed from calculating which nominees have enough cross-party appeal to clear 60-vote filibuster hurdles, the president is likely to discover an expanded universe of qualified, willing and perhaps untested candidates for executive and judicial vacancies.

“There are a number of people who have declined to participate in that process because of their frustration or the danger of being caught up in the procedural fights in the Senate,” Earnest said. Obama might find those people now willing to face a confirmation process if they only have to find 51 votes in the Senate to get the job.

“Does that mean in the future that there are other people who might have previously declined to be a part of that process who are more open to it now? I would allow that that's a possible outcome,” the president’s deputy press secretary added. 

Reid, who opposed the rules change when the Republican majority proposed it in 2005, has argued that the number of filibusters of nominees during the Obama administration has reached unacceptable levels.

In July, Reid stepped away from the threatened rule change after senators reached a deal, forged by John McCain, to proceed with seven nominations by replacing two others named to the National Labor Relations Board. But that arrangement did not apply to future nominees.

Reid also reminded the chamber of the lasting impact the move will have. “When Republicans are in power, these changes will apply to them as well,” he said. “That's simple fairness.” 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.

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