Barack Obama will have vastly greater power to appoint nominees to cabinet posts and the judiciary after Senate Democrats yesterday forced the biggest change in half a century to the chamber’s rules.
By a vote of 52 to 48, the Senate ended the use of so-called filibusters against presidential nominees, overturning traditions in the chamber that allowed the minority party to block White House nominees.
Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader, after a bitter debate in a packed chamber, won the battle to change rules that required nominees to get 60 votes in the 100-member chamber for confirmation. The showdown over the filibuster underlines how a chamber that has promoted courtesy in conducting its business is increasingly as partisan as the rest of the US political system.
“It’s time to change the Senate before this institution becomes obsolete,” Mr Reid said in his speech. The Democrats will now be able to use their 55-vote majority in the chamber to pass nominees, instead of having to get 60 votes under the old rules.
Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader, warned Democrats over the changes. “I say to my friends on the other side of the aisle, you’ll regret this. And you may regret it a lot sooner than you think.”
The Republicans have a strong chance of regaining control of the Senate in the 2014 midterm congressional elections, with many vulnerable Democrats weakened further by the bungled rollout of Mr Obama’s health law.
Anger over the deployment of the filibuster came to a head over the Republicans’ refusal to allow a straight vote over three of Mr Obama’s nominees to the most important appeals court, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
The rules change will not affect nominees to the country’s highest judicial body, the Supreme Court, who will still need to pass the 60-vote threshold to be confirmed.
The change is likely to clear the way for the confirmation of Mel Watt, a Democratic congressman, whose nomination to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency has been blocked by Republicans.
Mr Watt, who would be regulating America’s two government-sponsored mortgage providers, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, has supported much stronger policies to help homeowners burdened by debts on their house purchases.
Of 36 executive branch nominees filibustered since 1949, 16 have been under Mr Obama.