By William Douglas
and Anita Kumar
McClatchy Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON: The Democratic-controlled Senate on Thursday changed its longstanding rules to strip the Republican minority of its filibuster power to block many presidential nominations, making it easier to confirm President Barack Obama’s appointees but increasing partisan tensions in an already acrimonious chamber.
After threatening to do so for months, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., pulled the trigger on the so-called “nuclear option,” a series of procedural maneuvers to change Senate rules from requiring a 60-vote threshold for nominees.
With a 52-48 vote, the Senate agreed to consider all executive branch and judicial nominees, except for Supreme Court picks, under a majority-rules system. The Senate has 53 Democrats, 45 Republicans and two independents who caucus and usually vote with Democrats.
Three Democrats — Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Carl Levin of Michigan and Mark Pryor of Arkansas — joined all 45 Republicans in opposing the change.
Obama hailed Reid for ending “an unprecedented pattern of obstruction in Congress that’s prevented too much of the American people’s business from getting done.”
“Enough is enough. The American people’s business is far too important to keep falling prey to Washington politics,” Obama said at the White House. “A deliberate ... effort to obstruct everything no matter the merits, just to re-fight the results of an election, is not normal.”
Obama had a different opinion when he was in the minority himself in a Republican-led Senate and Republican George W. Bush was in the White House.
“If the majority chooses to end the filibuster, if they choose to change the rules and put an end to democratic debate, “ he said in 2005, “then the fighting, the bitterness and the gridlock will only get worse.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest pushed back on any talk of a flip-flop, saying circumstances have changed for the worse since 2005. He said there were 59 judicial vacancies when Obama took office. Now, he said, there are 93.
“That is an indication of how this filibuster situation has gotten out of control,” Earnest said. “And it’s why the president is pleased that Sen. Reid has taken the steps that he’s taken today to make this process more efficient.”
Reid reverses on filibuster
By invoking the nuclear option, Reid also reversed himself on the importance of the filibuster to the minority party. He opposed the option when then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., toyed with it in 2006.
Reid said he had no choice after Republicans blocked the three D.C. circuit court picks and the nomination of Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency. The filibuster of Watt was the first of a sitting member of Congress since 1843.
“It’s time to change the Senate before this institution becomes obsolete,” Reid said on the Senate floor as senators sat at their desks listening attentively. “The American people — Democrats, Republicans, independents — are fed up with this gridlock, this obstruction.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., blasted Reid, accusing him of trying to “break the rules to change the rules” and waging a naked power grab to push through Obama’s agenda and nominees.
Reid and McConnell accused each other of reneging on an agreement they forged last July and a vow they made last January on nominations.
Reid said Republicans broke that vow when they initially blocked the nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., to be the defense secretary. Hagel was eventually confirmed.
McConnell asserted that Reid and other Democrats were simply itching for a fight and had used the court nominations to wage one.
Republicans objected to the nominations because they maintain that the three slots on the court aren’t needed because of the court’s caseload.