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November 21, 2013

Democrats Change US Senate Rules on Obama Nominees

by Michael Bowman

The Democratic-led U.S. Senate has voted to change the rules for confirming presidential nominees and strip the ability of minority Republicans to block them.  The move is designed to reduce gridlock on Capitol Hill and smooth the functioning of government, but, it could further scuttle bipartisanship and open the door to a reshaping of America’s legislative process.

Filibusters allow the Senate’s minority party to set a 60-vote threshold to advance almost any business before the 100-member body.  As a blocking maneuver, it is highly effective.

Majority Democrats say Republicans have overused the filibuster when it comes to confirming executive branch and judicial nominees.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid:

“Republican obstruction has become endemic in the Senate over the last five years, grinding the work of this institution to a halt, threatening the integrity of this institution, and damaging our country," said Reid.

Thursday, Democrats forced a series of mostly party line votes to change the rules governing the chamber.  Now, simple majority votes will suffice to confirm federal nominees other than Supreme Court justices.  Republicans like Chuck Grassley objected.

“This is about a naked power grab, and nothing more than a power grab.  This is about the other side not getting everything they want, when they want it," said Grassley.

Not so, according to President Barack Obama.

“All too often we have seen a single senator or a handful of senators choose to abuse arcane procedural tactics to unilaterally block bipartisan compromises, or to prevent well-qualified patriotic Americans from filling critical positions in public service in our system of government," said President Obama.

Republicans warn that Democrats will regret Thursday’s vote the next time they are in the minority.  Curbing the filibuster through a partisan vote had been called the “nuclear option,” given its potential to rile Republicans and further poison bipartisanship.  

Analyst John Fortier sees long-term implications:

“The House [of Representatives] you can get something done if you have a one vote majority.  The Senate, because of the filibuster rule and some other features, has usually been a place where you had to have a more bipartisan coalition.  I think this is the beginning of changes to make the Senate much more like the House, to make it much more a majoritarian institution," said Fortier.

Those changes can be seen as a needed curtailment of legislative abuse - or as an ill-advised alteration of the very fabric of American democracy.