Obama Should Benefit From Senate Rules Change

The Senate's vote on Thursday to change its rules and approve presidential appointments by a simple majority, presents new opportunities for the president. Until now, dozens of appointments to the administration and the federal bench have been held up because they could not get the needed 60 votes in the Senate.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene. President Obama should have a freer hand to install executive branch nominees and judges now that Senate Democrats have stripped Republicans of the power to block those nominations with a filibuster. Democrats, led by Majority Leader Harry Reid, voted to change the rules of the Senate yesterday, so from now on most nominees can be confirmed with just a simple majority vote. The move was so controversial it was dubbed the nuclear option. And Republicans are now warning of severe fallout. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama welcomed the procedural move to limit Republicans' filibuster power. While Obama says he respects the Senate's role to advise and consent on his nominees, he accused Republicans of abusing that power to simply gum up the works.

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

HORSLEY: Obama conceded Democrats have also been guilty of using the filibuster for partisan purposes, a move he defended as a senator when it was a Republican president whose nominees were being blocked. But Obama says obstruction has gotten worse since he moved into the Oval Office. In the last five years, he says, Republicans have filibustered nearly 30 of his executive branch nominees, more than were blocked in the previous six decades.

OBAMA: In each of these cases it's not been because they opposed the person, that there was some assessment they were unqualified, that there was some scandal that had been unearthed. It was simply because they opposed the policies that the American people voted for in the last election.

HORSLEY: While Obama and his fellow Democrats billed the rules change yesterday as a victory for democracy, Republicans branded it a power grab. Lamar Alexander is the top Republican on the Senate Rules Committee.

SENATOR LAMARA ALEXANDER: It's another partisan political maneuver to permit the Democratic majority to do whatever it wants to do; in this case it's to advance the president's regulatory agenda and the only cure for it that I know is an election.

HORSLEY: The nuclear option was initially pushed by junior Democrats who've never served in the minority, and who are therefore less concerned about preserving their own filibuster rights. The idea gained strength each time Republicans blocked another Obama nominee.

And Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid finally forced the issue after the GOP filibustered three of the president's picks for a federal appeals court here in Washington. Senators will still be allowed to filibuster Supreme Court nominees. But Russell Wheeler, who tracks judicial appointments at the Brookings Institution, says this should make it easier for Obama to put his mark on the rest of the federal bench.

RUSSELL WHEELER: If the Senate can confirm his nominees with 51 votes, you know, a majority rather than a super-majority, there's going to be more confirmations.

HORSLEY: White House spokesman Josh Earnest says there are nearly twice as many vacancies on the federal bench now as there were at this point during George W. Bush's term. Earnest says the president is eager to fill those vacancies. He may find more willing candidates now that the threat of a time-consuming filibuster has been lifted.

JOSH EARNEST: 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.

HORSLEY: Wheeler warns yesterday's rules change won't necessarily mean smooth sailing for all judicial nominees though, if there's a senator bent on keeping them off the bench.

WHEELER: They have methods other than just filibustering to keep a nomination from going forward. There's the blue-slip rule which says that if a home-state senator objects to a nominee, the nominee won't proceed to hearings.

HORSLEY: Angry Republicans also warned that by using the nuclear option, Democrats may have destroyed what little chance there was for bipartisan cooperation going forward. Obama argues otherwise. He says even some Republicans acknowledged privately that filibusters were getting out of hand. He insists there are still Senators from both parties who want to move forward on issues like immigration.

OBAMA: And if there are differences in the Senate, then debate should be had, people should vote their conscience. They should vote on behalf of their constituents. But they should vote.

HORSLEY: Fresh votes are expected for one of the president's appeals court nominees and his choice to oversee Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, soon after the Senate returns from its Thanksgiving recess. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

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