Senate Democrats change filibuster rules to break gridlock on judicial nominations

Senate Democrats voted last week to change filibuster rules to allow all judicial nominees – with the exception of Supreme Court nominees – to be confirmed with a simple majority vote (50+1) rather than a two-thirds (60) vote threshold. 

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) exercised the so-called “nuclear option” to change the filibuster rules to overcome what he called “unprecedented obstruction” by Senate Republicans to block confirmations of appointees and judges nominated by President Barack Obama.

“There’s been unbelievable, unprecedented obstruction. For the first time in the history of our republic, Republicans have routinely used the filibuster to prevent President Obama from appointing his executive team or confirming judges,” said Reid, who pointed out that in many cases Republican Senators did not raise objections to the nominees’ qualifications. “The United States has wasted an unprecedented amount of time on procedural hurdles and partisan obstruction.”

According to a memo released by Reid’s office, 82 out of the 168 nominees who have been filibustered in the nation’s history have occurred during the Obama administration. The memo also noted that Obama’s judicial nominees have had to wait an average of 100 longer for confirmation than Bush’s nominees.

In fact, since October, all three of Obama’s nominees – Patricia Millett (55 to 38), Robert Wilkins (53-38), and Nina Pillard (56 to 41) – to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals have been filibustered. Democrats pointed out that Republicans did not raise serious objections to nominees’ qualifications before filibustering their nominations, which breached the Gang of 14’s “extraordinary circumstances” clause. That was the tipping point which prompted Senate Democrats to change the filibuster rules.

“These nominees deserve at least an up or down vote – yes or no. But Republican filibusters deny them a fair vote – any vote – and deny the President his team,” said Reid.

Other examples of Republican obstructionism cited by Senate Democrats include the nominations of Richard Cordray, Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, who waited 2 years, and Gina McCarthy, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, who waited almost 900 days to be confirmed.

Reid pointed out that Republicans have filibustered even the nomination of former GOP Senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense (before his eventual confirmation) and, most recently, the nomination of former North Carolina Congressman Mel Watt to serve as Administrator of the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

“Consistent and unprecedented obstruction by the Republican caucus has turned advise and consent into deny and obstruct,” said Reid. “The need for change is so, so very obvious.”

The rules change – which was approved by a 52 to 48 vote last Thursday to bring to the floor Millet’s nomination – would “guarantee that all judicial and executive branch nominees, except Supreme Court nominees, can be confirmed with simple up or down votes.” Supreme Court nominees will still the super-majority 60 votes to be confirmed. Reid said the new filibuster rules will apply to all future Presidents, Republican or Democrat.

When asked whether Democrats are worried that the new filibuster rules could be used by a Republican Majority to jam through confirmations of conservative judges, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York) said the need to break the gridlock outweighs the future risks.

“We’d much prefer the risk of up or down votes in majority rule than the risk of continued total obstruction. That’s the bottom line. No matter who’s in power,” said Schumer. “We wish it hadn’t come to this. But the American people deserve a functioning government, not gridlock.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called the rules change a “power grab” and an attempt by the Democrats to “distract” Americans from the problems of Obamacare.

“In order to distract attention away from Obamacare, the Senate has just broken the rules in order to change the rules,” said McConnell. “It doesn’t distract people from Obamacare; it reminds them of Obamacare. It reminds them of all the broken promises. It reminds them of the power grab. It reminds them of the way Democrats set up one set of rules for themselves and another for everybody else. One set of rules for them and another for everybody else.”

However, McConnell declined to say whether he would abide by the new filibuster or reinstate the supermajority threshold if Republicans gain the majority in the Senate.


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