In Landmark Vote, Senate Limits Use of the Filibuster

The Senate approved the most fundamental alteration of its rules in more than a generation on Thursday, ending the minority party’s ability to filibuster most presidential nominees in response to the partisan gridlock that has plagued Congress for much of the Obama administration.

Furious Republicans accused Democrats of a power grab, warning them that they would deeply regret their action if they lost control of the Senate next year and the White House in years to come. Invoking the Founding Fathers and the meaning of the Constitution, Republicans said Democrats were trampling the minority rights the framers intended to protect. But when the vote was called, Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader who was initially reluctant to force the issue, prevailed 52 to 48.

Under the change, the Senate will be able to cut off debate on executive and judicial branch nominees with a simple majority rather than rounding up a supermajority of 60 votes. The new precedent established by the Senate on Thursday does not apply to Supreme Court nominations or legislation itself.

It represented the culmination of years of frustration over what Democrats denounced as a Republican campaign to stall the machinery of Congress, stymie President Obama’s agenda and block his choices for cabinet posts and federal judgeships by insisting that virtually everything the Senate approves be done by a supermajority.

After repeatedly threatening to change the rules, Mr. Reid decided to follow through when Republicans refused this week to back down from their effort to keep Mr. Obama from filling any of three vacancies on the most powerful appeals court in the country.

This was the final straw for some Democratic holdouts against limiting the filibuster, providing Mr. Reid with the votes he needed to impose a new standard certain to reverberate through the Senate for years.

“There has been unbelievable, unprecedented obstruction,” Mr. Reid said as he set in motion the steps for the vote on Thursday. “The Senate is a living thing, and to survive it must change as it has over the history of this great country. To the average American, adapting the rules to make the Senate work again is just common sense.”

Republicans accused Democrats of irreparably damaging the character of an institution that in many ways still operates as it did in the 19th century, and of disregarding the constitutional prerogative of the Senate as a body of “advice and consent” on presidential nominations.

“You think this is in the best interest of the United States Senate and the American people?” asked the Republican leader, Senator Mitch McConnell, sounding incredulous.

“I say to my friends on the other side of the aisle, you’ll regret this. And you may regret it a lot sooner than you think,” he added.

Mr. Obama applauded the Senate’s move. “Today’s pattern of obstruction, it just isn’t normal,” he told reporters at the White House. “It’s not what our founders envisioned. A deliberate and determined effort to obstruct everything, no matter what the merits, just to refight the results of an election is not normal, and for the sake of future generations we can’t let it become normal.”

Only three Democrats voted against the measure.

The changes will apply to all 1,183 executive branch nominations that require Senate confirmation — not just cabinet positions but hundreds of high- and midlevel federal agency jobs and government board seats.

This fight was a climax to the bitter debate between the parties over electoral mandates and the consequences of presidential elections. Republicans, through their frequent use of the various roadblocks that congressional procedure affords them, have routinely thwarted Democrats. Democrats, in turn, have accused Republicans of effectively trying to nullify the results of a presidential election they lost, whether by trying to dismantle his health care law or keep Mr. Obama from filling his cabinet.

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