By Thomas Ferraro and Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate, in a historic and bitterly fought rule change, stripped Republicans on Thursday of their ability to block President Barack Obama’s judicial and executive branch nominees.
On a nearly party-line vote of 52-48, Democrats changed the Senate’s balance of power by reducing from 60 to 51 the number of votes needed to end procedural roadblocks known as filibusters against presidential nominees, except those for U.S. Supreme Court judges.
Obama, a former Senator, praised the action, calling the filibuster “a reckless and relentless tool to grind all business to a halt.”
The rule, which has become a symbol of Washington gridlock, has survived dozens of attacks over the years largely because both major political parties like to use it whenever they are in the minority in the Senate. Getting rid of it was considered so momentous that it was dubbed the “nuclear option” in the Senate.
The rule change, which does not apply to legislation, will speed up the confirmation of Obama appointments to the courts as well as to cabinet and regulatory agencies. But it is likely to stoke the bitter partisan divide in Washington as Republicans search for a way to retaliate.
The immediate spark for the move was Democratic frustration at Republican use of the filibuster to block Obama’s appointments to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, considered the nation’s second most important court after the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Washington-based appeals court handles crucial disputes involving the powers of the presidency and Congress, along with regulatory matters involving air and water pollution, banks, securities trading, telecommunications and labor relations.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, led the charge on the rules change, accusing Republicans of record obstructionism and saying the American public is right to believe that “Congress is broken.”
Reid said that of the 168 filibusters against presidential nominees in U.S. history, half were held against Obama’s picks.
“It’s time to change,” Reid said.
Republican Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa fired back, “This is a naked power grab.”
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell insisted that there was no reason for a rule change, saying Republicans had confirmed the vast majority of Obama’s judicial nominees.
McConnell also accused Democrats of taking the action merely to divert attention from the botched launch of Obama’s healthcare law, known as Obamacare.
“They muscled through Obamacare on a party-line vote and didn’t care about the views of the minority. And that’s just what they’re doing here, too,” McConnell said.
But with Congress’s approval rating in single digits and no indication Republicans will compromise with Obama on much of anything, Reid decided to pull the trigger.
Reid assumes that voters, who polls show are disgusted with a largely “do-nothing” Congress, won’t be upset by a rule change to confirm stalled nominees, Democratic aides said.
Reid also figured that if he did not change the rules, that increasingly anti-compromise Republicans would change them when they win control of the Senate, which could happen in next year’s election, the aides said.