WASHINGTON — Large-scale filibuster reform came to the Senate on Thursday, even if it was a bit later than reform advocates like Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken would have liked.
Stung by a series of Republican filibusters on President Obama’s judicial and administrative nominees, Sen. Harry Reid asked the Senate to change its rules Thursday and require only a majority vote to end debate on those nominations going forward. In the past, majority party senators faced a 60-vote hurdle for breaking a threatened filibuster, and Democrats only hold 55 seats. Changing the rule itself needed a majority vote, and 52 Democrats, including both Minnesotans, voted to do so.
It was the long-threatened “nuclear option” finally come to fruition — over objections from every Republican, some of whom helped broker a compromise and preserve the filibuster just four months ago, Democrats changed the rules and set themselves up to approve most of its president’s nominees no matter what the minority has to say about it.
Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken have long backed filibuster changes, although their proposals were often more nuanced than just slashing the 60-vote threshold for these types of nominees. But both said Thursday the changes were justified, given how Republicans have blocked Obama nominees, from a member of the House picked to lead the federal housing agency to three nominees to the powerful D.C. Circuit Court this month.
Of the 47 executive branch nominations ever blocked by Senate filibusters, more than half have come during Obama’s tenure, according to Reid’s office.
“There is a reason for the minority in the Senate to have certain rights, but with those rights comes responsibility, and they were not exercising that responsibility at all,” Franken said.
Filibuster fight has lasted months
Filibuster reform has been on Democrats’ radar for the past several Congresses, but until Thursday, most clashes over it have ended in some type of compromise.
In January, as the 113th Congress kicked off, lawmakers agreed to end filibusters on “motions to recommit,” the procedural move needed to bring bills to the Senate floor. This didn’t end the minority’s ability to block bills and nominations, but rather sped up the legislative process a bit.
Republicans continued to block Obama executive branch nominees, so in July, Reid threatened to do what he’d thus far resisted: pull the trigger on a major rule change and lower the 60-vote threshold on nominees once and for all. Lawmakers scrambled and reached a short-term accord: After a closed-door meeting of the full Senate, Republicans agreed to approve a slate of Obama nominees in exchange for preserving filibuster rules.
But the filibuster fight caught fire again this month when Republicans blocked three nominees to the D.C. Circuit, most recently on Monday. Reid again threatened to overhaul the rules, and followed through on Thursday.
In the past, Klobuchar had pushed a package of generally smaller reforms (the most notable would have been the return of the “talking filibuster,” where senators holds the floor for the duration of their filibusters). But she said Thursday she had also supported a lower voting threshold — “it just didn’t have a lot of legs in the past” (Reid, notably, opposed dramatically changing the rules until this session).
Franken had pitched a plan to flip the filibuster rule on its head, requiring 41 votes to keep debate open rather than 60 votes to close it. That would put the onus on the minority to keep their filibuster going rather than on the majority to break it.
He said Thursday he would have preferred senators institute a plan like that at the beginning of the year, rather than fight through nominations the way they have since then. But in the end, he’s happy with the rule change.
“We’ve seen executive agencies that have been short of very important personnel, and that makes it very hard for the executive branch to do its work, and we have seen filibuster after filibuster on things like judges where it’s really been abused,” he said.
Republicans could eventually use rules, too
Republicans contended the rule change was just meant to draw attention away from the rough rollout for President Obama’s health-care law. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called Democrats hypocritical for pushing a rule that allows them to approve Obama’s nominees, but one that would still let them filibuster a Republican-appointed Supreme Court justice (assuming a Republican president could appoint one while Democrats still held the Senate).
“This rules-change charade has gone from being a biennial threat, to an annual threat, to now a quarterly threat. It’s become a threat every time Senate Democrats don’t get their way,” McConnell said during an intense floor debate. “And their repeated promises at the end of every crisis, that they won’t threaten it again, just don’t seem to be worth any more than their promises on Obamacare.”
But the rule change could end up helping Republicans down the road. If they’re able to take back control of the Senate and the White House, they can use the same rule Democrats changed today to push through their own nominees.
Three-fifths of Senate Democrats, including Klobuchar and Franken, have only served in a majority and not worked through the powerlessness Republicans feel in the Obama years. Franken said Democrats felt hastened to pass the new filibuster rules in case Republicans regain the chamber and do it for themselves.
“There were many of us who felt that whether we did this or not, there was no assurance that the other party wouldn’t do this anyway,” he said.
Klobuchar said she’s OK with some future Republican majority using the new rules, as Democrats plan to over the next few months. She stressed Democrats aren’t looking to change the rules on Supreme Court nominees, and she said Republicans should follow that precedent.
“I think you just make it simpler to put them on the court and put them on the president’s team, and I think we go into this knowing this would apply whether a Republican is president or a Democrat,” she said. “The key is just to move some of these things.”
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry