Senate Democrats, After Threats, Detonate 'Nuclear Option'

The Senate voted on Thursday to abandon precedent and change its rules to end the filibuster for most of President Obama's judicial and Cabinet nominations. The rules change strips the Senate's GOP minority of a potent tool.

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After years of threats from both parties to detonate the so-called nuclear option, Senate Democrats have finally done it. In a near party-line vote yesterday, the majority Democrats stripped some power from the Republican minority. It's a rule change that means from now on, just a simple majority will be needed to break filibusters for most of President Obama's nominees. Only nominations to the Supreme Court will still need a 60-vote supermajority to overcome a filibuster. Here's NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Until now, any presidential nomination could be blocked if it failed to muster at least 60 votes to get what's known as cloture, and thwart a filibuster in the 100-member Senate. But yesterday, as he presided over the Senate, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy issued a new ruling on the votes required for cloture.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: The threshold for cloture on nominations - not including those of the Supreme Court of the United States - is now a majority. That is the ruling of the chair.

WELNA: And all but three of the 55 members in the Senate's Democratic caucus fell in line to uphold Leahy's ruling. Majority Leader Harry Reid urged them to do so.

SEN. HARRY REID: It's time to change. It's time to change the Senate before this institution becomes obsolete.

WELNA: Key to Reid's success in deploying the nuclear option was a decision he and several other top Democrats made in recent weeks. It was to get behind a campaign to curtail the filibuster being waged by some relative newcomers to the Senate. Reid once opposed such changes, but said he'd changed his mind.

REID: Consistent and unprecedented obstruction by the Republican caucus has turned advise and consent into deny and obstruct.

WELNA: Reid pointed to GOP filibusters in the past month against three nominees whom President Obama appointed to fill three vacancies on the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals. Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions argued the court does not have a big enough caseload to justify filling those vacancies.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: The only reason those judges were blocked, the only reason they did not get a confirmation, was because we didn't need them.

WELNA: But Minority Leader Mitch McConnell indicated there was a more political reason for blocking those nominees. The D.C. Circuit Court rules on lawsuits against regulations issued by the Obama administration, which McConnell said was trying to skirt constitutional checks and balances.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL: So it wants to circumvent the people's representatives with an aggressive regulatory agenda, and our Democratic colleagues want to facilitate that by filling up a court that will rule on his agenda.

WELNA: McConnell accused Democrats of breaking the Senate's rules to change its rules - even though he had endorsed the nuclear option eight years ago; when Republicans ran the Senate, and Democrats were blocking nominations. The minority leader warned Democrats that the shoe could soon, once again, be on the other foot.

MCCONNELL: If you want to play games, set yet another precedent that you'll no doubt come to regret, I say to my friends on the other side of the aisle: You'll regret this, and you may regret it a lot sooner than you think.

WELNA: Michigan's Carl Levin agreed. He was one of the three Democrats opposing the rules change.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Removing these minority protections risks that in the future, important civil and political rights might just disappear because a majority agree that they should.

WELNA: Other Democrats, though, exulted over what all agreed will be a lasting change to the Senate's balance of power. Tom Harkin is an Iowa Democrat.

SEN. TOM HARKIN: This is a bright day for the United States Senate, and for our country; to finally be able to move ahead on nominations so that any president - not just this president; any president - can put together his executive branch.

WELNA: At the White House, Obama applauded his fellow Democrats for removing a huge obstacle to getting his nominees confirmed.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The gears of government have to work. And the step that a majority of senators took today, I think, will help make those gears work just a little bit better.

WELNA: But Arizona Republican John McCain said it will now be even harder for Republicans to work with Democrats.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: This is a sad day. I'm angry, yes. We'll get over the anger. But the sorrow at what has been done to this institution will be with us for a long, long time.

WELNA: As will be, most likely, the rules change.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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