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The Senate has voted to overturn decades of precedent by eliminating a rule that allows a minority to block final votes.
In a 52-48 vote, Senate Democrats threw out the rule, which can require a 60-vote majority to assure a yes-or-no vote on presidential nominees to the courts, Cabinet departments or other agencies.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who launched the move, accused Republicans of obstructing President Barack Obama’s nominees and said the Senate has to change “before this institution becomes obsolete.”
Supreme Court nominations would be exempted from the change.
To hear the interview with NPR’s David Welna, click the audio at the top of the page.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW. Let's get right to Capitol Hill, where Senate Democrats have invoked the so-called nuclear option by voting to change the filibuster rules with a simple majority. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy read the ruling.
SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY: So under the precedent set by the Senate, today, November 21st, 2013, the threshold for cloture on nominations, not including those to the Supreme Court of the United States, is now a majority. That is the ruling of the chair.
HOBSON: What that means is that a 60-vote supermajority is no longer needed to end filibuster of most presidential nominations. As the senator said, Supreme Court nominees, as well as legislation, will still face a 60-vote hurdle to get past a filibuster.
CHAKRABARTI: The renewed call for the so-called nuclear option comes after three recent presidential nominations to the D.C. Circuit Court were blocked by Senate Republicans. Here's Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid speaking earlier this morning.
SENATOR HARRY REID: Gridlock has consequences, and they're terrible. It's not only bad for President Obama, bad for this body, the United States Senate, it's bad for our country. It's bad for our national security and bad for economic security. That's why it's time to get the Senate working again, not for the good of the current Democratic majority or some future Republican majority, but for the good of the United States of America.
CHAKRABARTI: But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell disagreed.
SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: If you think this is in the best interest of the United States Senate and the American people, to make advise and consent, in effect, mean nothing, obviously you can break the rules to change the rules to achieve that. But some of us have been around here long enough to know the shoe is sometimes on the other foot.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, joining us now with more is NPR congressional correspondent David Welna. And David, so the Senate has taken its vote. Did it fall along expectedly partisan lines?
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Meghna, it did pretty much. There were three members of the Democratic caucus who voted with Republicans to try to block this rules change, but the ultimate vote count was 52 to 48. The Democrats needed 51 votes. So they barely got by upholding this ruling of the chair, which Lamar Alexander, who is the top Republican on the Senate Rules Committee, just called the most important and most dangerous change in Senate rules since Thomas Jefferson first wrote them.
CHAKRABARTI: OK, so let's talk a little bit more about that, David, because it is such a controversial move. It's called the nuclear option in the Senate.
WELNA: Indeed, yes.
CHAKRABARTI: What are the risks that the Democrats are taking in making this rules change?
WELNA: Well, you know, it's interesting. They've been talking about this nuclear option since 2005 when Republicans ran the Senate, and it was Democrats who were trying to get rid of - or trying to block President George W. Bush's nominees, and Republicans were saying it's time to get rid of this filibuster. Ever since then, there have been repeated skirmishes where one party or the other has threatened to call for a rules change that would be upheld with a simple majority of 51 votes. Normally it takes 67 votes to uphold a ruling of the chair on changing the rules.
But nobody has actually gone through with it up to this point. Each time, they've backed down because they all felt like it would just blow things up in the Senate. There would be no comity among senators, or far less than there is even now, and so they sort of backed off.
Things have come to a point where Democrats I think have just figured they have little lose on this. They're losing so many of these cloture votes, these votes to cut off filibusters, that they felt like President Obama would just be continually blocked for the three remaining years in office if they didn't take action now.
And in fact, you know, rather than with a bang, it kind of came off with maybe more of a whine than a whimper, with both sides sort of complaining about this. But, you know, they're out on the Senate floor talking to one another, and it doesn't look like the sky is falling here.
CHAKRABARTI: Well maybe not yet because as we heard a little earlier in that tape from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, I mean, he says sometimes the shoe is on the other foot. I mean, I imagine he was sort of harking back to what you were saying back in 2004 when the Democrats were blocking a lot of President Bush's nominees, and Republicans wanted to invoke the nuclear option.
But I imagine what this might mean going forward. I mean, so maybe it's good for Democrats in the next three years, but what about in election cycles to come and if the, you know, if the balance of power shifts in the Senate?
WELNA: Well, Democrats that I talked to said so be it. I mean, if you elect a president, and that president chooses nominees to fill either posts in the administration or vacancies on the federal courts, that president should be allowed to make those choices without having to face a supermajority of the Senate to confirm those nominations.
And they did set aside Supreme Court nominations. There were many people who support abortion rights who are worried that if they include Supreme Court nominees that Republicans, once they get back into power in the Senate and in the White House, that they could ram through judges who would overturn Roe versus Wade. So they tried to set apart the Supreme Court.
Republicans are saying that's a difference without a distinction. Now they've set this precedent of getting rid of the filibuster for other nominations, the Supreme Court nominations will also lose the filibuster threshold once they're in power.
CHAKRABARTI: David, in the last couple seconds that we have, just remind us once again. Why did Republicans initially want to block the three D.C. Circuit Court nominees that Democrats were complaining about?
WELNA: Well, the argument that Republicans made was that this court did not need all 11 judges that it has traditionally had. Only eight of the seats are currently filled, and they said they don't need three more judges on that court. They don't have enough work to do.
The fact is that right now we have parity among the eight judges, four named by Democratic president, four by Republican presidents. But you also have senior judges, six of them, five of them were appointed by Republicans, and Republicans are worried that naming three Democratic-appointed judges to the bench would change the makeup of this court.
CHAKRABARTI: David Welna, NPR's congressional correspondent, thank you so much, David.
WELNA: You're welcome, Meghna. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.