Update: Obama backs Senate move to curb filibuster (video)

Obama Senate Nominations Clash

Evan Vucci/AP

President Barack Obama speaks in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013. The president said he supports the move by Senate Democrats to make it harder for Republicans to block his nominees. Obama spoke shortly after the Senate voted 52-48 to weaken the power of the filibuster. The rule change will make it harder for minority Republicans to block confirmation of the president's nominees for judges and other top posts.

Senate Democrats Pass "Nuclear Option" On Filibuster Rules

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Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) talks with reporters after stepping off the Senate floor at the U.S. Capitol November 21, 2013 in Washington, DC. The Senate voted 52-48 to invoke the so-called "nuclear option", voting to change Senate rules on the controversial filibuster for most presidential nominations with a simple majority vote.

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Senate Majority Leader Senator Harry Reid, D-Nev.


In a victory for Democrats, the Senate voted 52-48 on Thursday to weaken the power of the filibuster, in this case making it harder for minority Republicans to block confirmation of the president's nominees for judges and other top posts. President Barack Obama said he supports the move and that an "unprecedented pattern of obstruction" in Congress has left Americans more frustrated with Washington than ever.

Updates

11:55 a.m.: All but 3 Dems backed move; GOP responds with warning

Senate Democrats eased the way for swift approval of President Barack Obama's current and future nominees on Thursday, voting unilaterally to overturn decades of Senate precedent and undermine Republicans' ability to block final votes.

The 52-48 vote to undercut venerable filibuster rules on presidential appointees capped more than a decade of struggle in which presidents of both parties complained about delays in confirming appointees, particularly to the federal courts.

At the White House, Obama applauded the vote. He said Republicans had used delaying tactics "as a reckless and relentless tool to grind all business to a halt."

"And that's not what our founders intended. And it's certainly not what our country needs right now," the president said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who launched the effort, accused Republicans of "unbelievable, unprecedented obstruction" of Obama's selections to fill court vacancies and other offices.

"It's time to change the Senate, before this institution becomes obsolete," he said.

His Republican counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, accused Democrats of exercising raw power and said they would regret it when political fortunes switched.

He likened the effort to the president's since-discredited promise that Americans who like their health care can keep it under "Obamacare," noting that Reid promised last summer he wouldn't seek to change the process for approving appointees. "He may as well just have said, 'If you like the rules of the Senate, you can keep them,'" McConnell said.

At issue was a rule that can require a 60-vote majority to assure a yes-or-no vote on presidential nominees to the courts or to Cabinet departments or other agencies.

Under a parliamentary maneuver scripted in advance, Democrats led by Reid sought to change proceedings so that only a simple majority was required to clear the way for a final vote.

Supreme Court nominations would be exempted from the change and subject to a traditional filibuster, the term used to describe the 60-vote requirement to limit debate.

The move was backed by all but three Democrats and opposed by all the Senate's Republicans. Democratic dissidents were Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.

Pryor issued a statement saying the Senate "was designed to protect — not stamp out — the voices of the minority."

California's senior Senator Dianne Feinstein has sat on the Senate Judiciary Committee for two decades, approving judicial nominees that never get floor votes.

"It’s never, ever been like this. You just reach a point where your frustration just overwhelms and things have to change. Now, I recognize that I could be back in the minority again. But that’s okay if that happens. But I want for the remainder of my five-plus years to get something done," she told KPCC.

Feinstein said she suspects the GOP will fight back by not showing up at committee meetings. This morning, the Senate Judiciary Committee couldn't get a quorum to vote on pending judicial nominees.

"I think the level of frustration on the Democratic side has just reached the point where it’s worth the risk," she said.

For the past several years, Sen. Barbara Boxer has supported reforming but not scrapping the filibuster rule. She has suggested that senators actually stand up and deliver a speech the way filibusters are portrayed in the movies. But she changed her mind.

Pointing to the number of GOP filibusters against Obama nominees, Boxer told KPCC, "I realized that they were stopping him from getting a team."

John McCain criticized the move.

"We are now proving one thing, and that is: If the majority only can change the rules, then there are no rules," McCain said.

The change is the most far-reaching since 1975, when a two-thirds requirement for cutting off filibusters against legislation and all nominations was lowered to 60 votes.

It would deliver a major blow to the GOP's ability to thwart Obama in making appointments, though Republicans have promised the same fate would await Democrats whenever the GOP recaptures the White House and Senate control.

It also could adversely affect the level of bipartisan cooperation in the Senate — a quality already in short supply in an era of divided government.

The maneuvering occurred after a decade in which first one party, then the other, nursed a lengthening list of grievances over delays in confirmation for nominees to the courts.

McConnell noted that Democrats sought to thwart some of President George W. Bush's conservative appointees, while Democrats say the GOP has done the same to Obama'sappointees.

In a sign that a showdown was imminent, dozens of senators filed in to listen to Reid and McConnell swap accusations and then cast votes on a complicated series of parliamentary moves.

Even so, there was no doubt about the outcome, if Reid insisted. Democrats control 55 seats, compared with 45 for Republicans.

"These nominees deserve at least an up-or-down vote. But Republican filibusters deny them a fair vote," he said.

To which McConnell noted that the Senate has confirmed 215 of Obama's picks to the courts since he became president, and rejected two. "That's a confirmation rate of 99 percent," he said pointedly.

The nominee involved was Patricia Millett, an attorney and one of three nominees to the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals whose nomination Republicans have prevented from coming to a final vote.

Few if any complaints have been lodged against the qualifications possessed by Millett or the other two appointees, District Judge Robert L. Wilkins and law professor Cornelia Pillard. Instead, Republicans have argued that there is no need to confirm any of the three because the court's caseload doesn't warrant it.

"The need for change is obvious," Reid, of Nevada, said in remarks on the Senate floor. He said that in the nation's history, there have been 168 filibusters against presidential appointees. "Half of them have occurred during the Obama administration — during the last four and a half years," he added.

Noting that Democrats have periodically talked of changing the rules in recent month, he added, "we're not interested in having a gun put to our head any longer."

It was unclear how quickly Millett might be confirmed.

The clash capped a period of increasing irritation on the part of Democrats.

"They have decided that their base demands a permanent campaign against the president and maximum use of every tool available," Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., a leading advocate of revamping filibuster rules, said Wednesday of Republicans. He said that consideration "is trumping the appropriate exercise of advice and consent" by GOP senators.

The D.C. Circuit Court is viewed as second only to the Supreme Court in power because it rules on disputes over White House and federal agency actions. The circuit's eight judges are divided evenly between Democratic and Republican presidential appointees.

Senior Democrats wary of future GOP retaliation until recently opposed the move, but growing numbers of them have begun lining up behind Reid's effort.

In addition, two dozen groups, including the AFL-CIO and Sierra Club, wrote lawmakers Wednesday supporting the change, saying that "rampant, ideology-based obstructionism is the new norm in the U.S. Senate."

Last summer, Democrats dropped threats to rewrite Senate rules after Republicans agreed to supply enough votes to end filibusters against Obama's nominees to the National Labor Relations Board as well as nominees to head the Environmental Protection Agency, the Labor Department and other agencies.

— KPCC's Kitty Felde and AP's Alan Fram

11:17 a.m.: Obama backs Senate move to curb filibuster

President Barack Obama says he supports move by Senate Democrats to make it harder for Republicans to block his nominees.

Obama spoke shortly after the Senate voted 52-48 to weaken the power of the filibuster. The rule change will make it harder for minority Republicans to block confirmation of the president's nominees for judges and other top posts.

Obama says the "unprecedented pattern of obstruction" in Congress has left Americans more frustrated with Washington than ever. He said the pattern "isn't normal" and isn't based on substantive differences over his nominees.

The president says that as a former senator, he values the chamber's powers. But he says some rules are now being used as a tool to "grind business to a halt."

Watch the president's speech

— Associated Press

9:43 a.m.: Senate votes to curb filibusters on many nominees 

In a victory for Democrats, the Senate has voted to weaken filibusters and make it harder for Republicans to block confirmation of the president's nominees for judges and other top posts.

The mostly party-line vote was 52-48. It came Thursday after a series of procedural moves and angry accusations from both parties' leaders.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid complains that Republican gridlock has prevented the chamber from functioning.

But Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says Democrats are using a power play to distract voters from the president's troubled health care law.

The vote clears the way for Senate approval of three Obama picks for a top federal court. But it is unclear how long it would take for those nominees to clear final procedural hurdles.

— Alan Fram, Associated Press

9:34 a.m.: Senate Democrats seek to limit filibusters on nominees with 'nuclear option'

The debate has begun on the floor of the Senate over whether Majority Leader Harry Reid and his fellow Democrats can exercise the so-called nuclear option. That's the catchy name for a change in the Senate's rules that would make it much harder for Republicans to filibuster many of President Obama's nominees — most notably those he chooses for seats on federal courts.

Need some background on it? Check this It's All Politics post by NPR's David Welna. Basically, Democrats are proposing that judicial nominations (except those for the Supreme Court) could no longer be blocked even if 40 or more senators vote to hold up action. Instead, the rules would be changed to require a majority vote before action could be blocked.

Already this morning, Reid has made the case for changing the rules by accusing Republicans of turning "advise and consent" into "deny and obstruct" as they block Obama's nominees.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has responded by saying that Democrats promised they would not try to change the rules involving judicial nominations.

Saying that Democrats are trying to wage a "fake fight over judges" to take attention away from problems plaguing the Affordable Care Act, McConnell said the other party misled Republicans. Democrats might just as well have said "if you like the rules of the Senate, you can keep them," McConnell quipped — a not-so-subtle reminder of President Obama's pledge to Americans that if they liked their health care plans, they could keep them.

— Mark Memmott, NPR

 

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