October 23, 2014

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Democrats vote to curb filibusters on appointees

Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., speaks to the media on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., speaks to the media on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

WASHINGTON — 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’sRepublicans. 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.”

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’s appointees.

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.


  • LookBackTwo

    “It’s time to change the Senate, before this institution becomes obsolete,” – Harry Reid. Chalk one up for the socialists. Now, we have a “rubber stamp” senate! I guess 200 years as a successful republic shows we had it wrong all that time. Meanwhile, the democrat only “obummacare” is destroying our health system.

  • Conservator440

    Congrats to the Democrats—they have now anointed Barack Obama as dictator . Remember this next year at the elections. Obama wants to control the Courts by filling them with his liberal nominees and have no Senate interference. The hypocrites got their way. Let’s see what happens when the shoe is on the other foot.

    • Guest

      Without even the benefit of an event comparable to the Reichstag fire in 1933, Harry Reid and Barack Obama have consolidated their power similarly to how the German Chancellor consolidated his power by changing the rules. This unprecedented move by the Democrats will have far reaching consequences as Obama moves to consolidate his control over the federal courts and over the government at large. Obama already issues executive decrees changing laws enacted by Congress when they do not suit him, and adopting federal regulations (like the ObamaCare rules changes by HHS, that have lead to the cancellations of health policies for millions of Americans). With a U.S. District Court skewered by three new appointees, who now will have no opposition in the Senate controlled by the Democrats, Obama will have no challenge to his acquisiton and use of power to set America’s course.

      • oldruss

        I deleted this comment, or at least I thought I did, so I could repost it as a separate post. Disqus has malfunctioned and posted it here nonetheless, and attributed it to a “guest”. What a crappy system!

  • Allen

    I believe the dems will one day look back on this with remorse. They won’t always be the majority. You can almost hear already the weeping and wailing on the future date when the repugs use this new change to their advantage.

  • Allen

    ……..from the Wall Street Journal……….

    Here are some quotes from Senate Democrats in 2005:

    Sen. Barack Obama (D – ILL) 4/25/05
    “He hasn’t gotten his way. And that is now prompting a change in the Senate rules that really, I think, would change the character of the Senate forever.”

    Sen. Joseph Biden (D – DE) 5/23/05
    “This nuclear option is ultimately an example of the arrogance of power. It is a fundamental power grab.”

    Sen. Harry Reid (D – NV) 5/18/05
    “Mr. President, the right to extend the debate is never more important, when one party controls Congress and the White House. In these cases, a filibuster serves as a check on power and preserves our limited government.

    Sen. Chuck Schumer (D – NY) 5/18/05

    “We are on the precipice of a crisis—a constitutional crisis. The checks and balances which have been at the core of this republic are about to be evaporated by the nuclear option.

    Sen. Hillary Clinton (D – NY) 5/23/05
    “So this president has come to the majority in the Senate and basically said, ‘Change the rules. Do it the way I want it done.’ And I guess there just weren’t many voices on the other side of the aisle that after the way previous generations of Senators have acted and said, ‘Mr. President, we’re with you. We support you, but that’s a bridge too far. We can’t go there. You have to restrain yourself, Mr. President”

    “….You’ve got majority rule and then you’ve got the Senate over here, where people can slow things down—where they can debate—where they have something called the filibuster. You know, it seems like it’s a little less than efficient. Well, that’s right. It is…and deliberately designed to be so.”

    Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D – CA) 5/18/05
    “The nuclear option, if successful, will turn the Senate into a body that could have its rules broken at any time by a majority of Senators unhappy with any position taken by the minority.

    Sen Chris Dodd (D – CT) 5/18/05
    “I’ve never passed a single bill worth talking about that didn’t have as a lead co-sponsor a Republican. And I don’t know of a single piece of legislation that’s ever been adopted here that didn’t have a Republican and a Democrat in the lead. That’s because we need to sit down and work with each other. The rules of this institution have required that. That’s why we exist.”

    Sen Max Baucaus (D-MT) 5/19/05
    “This is the way democracy ends—not with a bomb, but with a gavel.”

    What a difference 8 years makes in these Senator’s “convictions.”

  • bpbatista

    I’m sure that this can’t possibly boomerang on the Democrats — like Obamacare.

    • Zen Grouch

      The game is still in the first quarter and the Republicans are celebrating on the sidelines like idiots…

  • Zen Grouch

    **Reid said that of 128 filibusters of nominees in the history of the Senate, half had occurred during the Obama administration.**

    Republicans will stop at nothing to being the government to a grinding halt.

    • John Boy

      I’m pretty sure this is a process that is used widely by both parties when they are in the minority. The Republicans whined about the process when they were in the majority and the Democrats did the exact same thing as the minority party.
      Maybe look at history before posting such nonsense.

      It is a matter of historical record that beginning in 2001, Senate Democrats dramatically changed the confirmation process. Throughout the Bush administration, Democrats actively sought to block numerous judicial nominees, forcing more than 30 cloture votes as Republicans tried to end persistent Democratic filibuster efforts.
      Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), voted against cloture a record-setting 27 times. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), cast 26 votes to filibuster Bush nominees and, in 2003, defiantly declared: “Yes, we are blocking judges by filibuster. That is part of the hallowed process around here.”

      Even Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who now claims to have been “respectful of President Bush’s appointments,” repeatedly joined with Democratic colleagues in attempting to filibuster judicial confirmations, including seven separate votes against cloture for the nomination of Miguel Estrada—one of the nation’s leading appellate lawyers—to the D.C. Circuit.

      Not to be outdone, Reid took virtually every opportunity to block Bush nominees, voting against cloture on 26 separate occasions. In his view there was no amount of time—“not a number in the universe”—that would be adequate for debate on the filibustered nominees.

      During his brief time in the Senate, President Obama himself played a key role in the Democratic filibuster campaign, helping lead the effort to block the nomination of Leslie Southwick to the Fifth Circuit. Then-Senator Obama also joined Democrat colleagues in voting to filibuster the judicial nominations of Priscilla Owen, William Pryor, Janice Rogers Brown, and Samuel Alito.

      • Zen Grouch

        “I’m pretty sure this is a process that is used widely by both parties when they are in the minority”

        I’m guessing you couldn’t quite comprehend my post…

        **Reid said that of 128 filibusters of nominees in the history of the Senate, half had occurred during the Obama administration.**

        • John Boy

          I guess since Harry said it must be true….

          President Barack Obama has had remarkable success in getting his judicial picks on the bench — substantially more success than his predecessor George W. Bush, according to economist John Lott, Jr.

          “To be honest, when you look at it, he has been much better at getting people on the court,”
          “George Bush got 72 percent of his appointments to the circuit court confirmed. Obama’s gotten 85 percent during his first term confirmed.

          Like I said earlier please look at history before post nonsense.

          • Zen Grouch

            I can tell by your *snark* you’re implying Reid does not speak the truth…

            …but you don’t quite come out and say so, leaving nothing behind to be called on.

            Clever Boy!

          • John Boy

            I use statistics you use words. I guess that is clever…

  • Allen

    I will look for the link, but the reality is that a grand total of 2, count ‘em, 2 obama nominees have not been approved by the senate. Over 97% have been approved. While it is true that the pugs have used cloture, it has been to voice displeasure of the candidate, but they almost always get approval in the end. There is no excuse for what the dims did, and without a doubt, there will come a day of great regret.

  • oldruss

    Without even the benefit of an event comparable to the Reichstag fire in 1933, Harry Reid and Barack Obama have consolidated their power similarly to how the German Chancellor consolidated his power by changing the rules. This unprecedented move by the Democrats will have far reaching consequences as Obama moves to consolidate his control over the federal courts and over the government at large. Obama already issues executive decrees changing laws enacted by Congress when they do not suit him, and adopting federal regulations (like the ObamaCare rules changes by HHS, that have lead to the cancellations of health policies for millions of Americans). With a U.S. District Court skewered by three new appointees, who now will have no opposition in the Senate controlled by the Democrats, Obama will have no challenge to his acquisiton and use of power to set America’s course as Obama alone sees fit.

  • shadow

    Over half of all fillibusters in the Senate since our country began have taken place in this presidents two terms by the racists in the Senate. They stop any and all legislation no matter how important to the country….jobs bill…too bad…farm bill…too bad….it’s crazy. They’ve got this TParty bunch of looney tune racists who are so scared of a black guy in the White House (hey…we call it WHITE House for a reason)…that they cannot stand the thought of anything good coming out of his administration. It will not backfire on Obama….it will backfire on the tin foil hat crowd.

    The Democrats should have done this 5 years ago. Bush would have.

    • Pablo Jones

      Once again people get misled by numbers without context. There have only been records on this since 1949. So this is a record of only 11 presidents. And this is only a count of cloture votes not filibusters. In the past the presidents have moved on instead of going through the filibuster.

      Why do you say this is the work of racists? Based on employment, the debt, healthcare, etc. I think it shows that those people that have been selected in to their positions shouldn’t have been.

      Now what jobs bill or measure has been blocked that could have turned our economy around?