The Senate today invoked the so-called "nuclear option" and stripped the ability of the minority party to block presidential nominations—a move that will smooth the path to confirmation for President Obama's judicial picks.
The 52-48 historic vote overturned a Senate rule that stood for more than a century. The rules previously required 60 votes to overcome a filibuster and advance a nomination to an up-or-down confirmation vote, which requires a simple majority.
Now, a simple majority can overcome a filibuster for all judicial nominees except those for the U.S. Supreme Court.
Senate Democrats had threatened to make the rule change in recent weeks, amid Republican blocks on Obama's three nominations for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) proposed the rule change earlier today.
President Obama addressed the filibuster changes early this afternoon, calling "today's pattern of obstruction -- it just isn't normal. It's not what our founders envisioned."
"All too often we've 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 of public service in our system of government," Obama said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement that the obstruction "is damaging our ability to fulfill the Senate's unique constitutional responsibility of advice and consent to ensure that the judicial branch has the judges it needs to do its job."
"I have always believed in the Senate's unique protection of the minority party, even when Democrats held a majority in the Senate," Leahy said. "When the minority has stood in the way of progress, I have defended their rights and held to my belief that the best traditions of the Senate would win out; that the 100 of us who stand in the shoes of over 310 million Americans would do the right thing. That is why I have always looked skeptically at efforts to change the Senate rules."
Today, Leahy said, the Senate "is faced with what to do to overcome this abuse and what action we should take to restore this body’s ability to fulfill its constitutional duties and do its work for the American people."
Several senators took to the floor after the votes to criticize the change, which they said fundamentally changed the way the Senate operated.
"This is about a naked power grab, and nothing more," Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking member of the judiciary committee. "This is about the other side not getting everything they want, when they want it."
"The point is this: any vote to change the Senate rules is a vote to remove one of the last meaningful checks on the president, and that vote would put these views on this important court," Grassley said. "They know if they can stack the deck on the D.C. Circuit, they can remove one of the last remaining checks on presidential power."
Grassley added that "the silver lining is that there will come a day when the roles are reversed."
"When that happens, our side will likely nominate and confirm lower court and Supreme Court nominees with 51 votes, regardless of whether the Democrats actually buy into this fanciful notion that they can demolish the filibuster on lower court nominees and still preserve it for Supreme Court nominees," Grassley said.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), warned about what might happen in the future.
"In the short term, judges will be confirmed who should be confirmed," Levin said. "But when the precedent is set that a majority can change the rules at will on judges, that precedent will be used to change the rules on consideration of legislation. And down the road, the hard-won protections and benefits for our people’s health and welfare will be less secure."
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said the move brings the Senate into the 21st century, because the filibuster was like an arms race, and he said in 1995 that if nothing was changed that the Senate couldn't function.
"This is a bright day for the U.S. Senate and our country to finally be able to move ahead, so that any president, not just this president, can put together his executive branch under our constitution," Harkin said on the floor. "A president should have the people he or she wants."
UPDATE 1:14 p.m.:
The Senate immediately voted 55-43 (with two senators voting present) to advance the nomination of Patricia Millett, a partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. That vote, called cloture, still requires a waiting period before a confirmation vote, meaning that Millett's nomination will likely get a vote tomorrow or after the Senate's Thanksgiving break.