WASHINGTON — In a historic move, Democrats in the Senate on Thursday voted to eliminate the use of the filibuster as a tool to block presidential appointments, upending a decades-old precedent that gave the minority party unique leverage on nominations.
After threatening to change the rules several times this year, the Democratic majority pulled the trigger on the so-called nuclear option after a series of procedural maneuvers that played out before a packed chamber. It would allow a president's nominees, except for seats on the Supreme Court, to be confirmed by a simple majority, rather than the 60-vote threshold that had become the norm.
Fifty-two senators voted in favor of the changes, with 48 voting in opposition.
Just three Democrats — red-state Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, as well as veteran Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan — opposed the move.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) argued that the change was needed in the face of unprecedented Republican obstruction of nominees, which prevented the president from fulfilling his constitutional duty to fill vacancies in the courts, as well as in his administration.
More broadly, he argued that the Senate threatened to become "obsolete" if it did not act to end gridlock.
"The gridlock has consequences," he said in opening the debate. "It's not only bad for President Obama, bad for this body, the United States Senate, it's bad for our country."
Reid acknowledged that neither party's hands were "clean" in the fight. When Democrats were in the minority nearly two decades ago, they fiercely resisted a Republican attempt to make the same rule change Democrats implemented Thursday.
But times had changed, he argued.
"Can anyone say that the Senate is working now?" he asked. "I don't think so."
Republicans accused Democrats of seeking to change the subject from the problematic rollout of Obama's healthcare law.
"It doesn't distract people from Obamacare, it reminds them of Obamacare," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said, following Reid at the lectern. "It only reinforces the narrative of a party that is willing to do and say just about anything to get its way."
Republicans also argued that Democrats were "breaking the rules to change the rules," by using a simple majority vote rather than a two-thirds vote, as Senate rules state. Democrats believe they are on firm footing, however, since the Constitution allows the Senate to make or change its own rules at any time.
The unprecedented action injected unusual drama into the historic Senate chamber. At one point Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), arguably the body's leading centrist, could be seen pleading with Reid to pull back from his threat.
In the short term, the Democrats' action paves the way for the confirmation of Obama's three pending appointments to the important D.C. Circuit court, beginning with Patricia Millett, whose nomination was the vehicle for Thursday's action. Democrats could also apply the rule change to other executive nominations that have been blocked, like Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.), Obama's pick to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency.
The long-term consequences are less clear. The Democrats' move amounts to a gamble that Republicans will not regain both the White House and control of the Senate by 2016. If they did, the GOP would likely abide by the same new rules to confirm nominees opposed by Democrats.
Looming more immediately is a possible vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court that would occur during Obama's final years in office. Democrats' decision to exempt high court appointments from the rules change might nonetheless give Republicans additional motivation to block whomever he chooses.