WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats, in a move both historic and provocative, voted Thursday to eliminate use of filibusters to block most presidential appointments, ending a decades-long tradition on grounds that Republicans had abused the process to create a near-permanent state of gridlock.
The change in Senate rules, which will allow all nominees except those for the Supreme Court to be approved by a simple majority, promises to usher in a wave of President Obama’s nominees. But it also raises the prospect of even more intense partisan bickering in the upper chamber, where a culture of collegiality has eroded significantly in recent years.
Although stripping the filibuster from the Senate confirmation rulebook had been threatened by members of both parties for the past decade, senators had repeatedly stopped short of the disruptive action. Denying the minority party the use of the filibuster was seen as so dangerous to Senate precedent that lawmakers referred to it as the “nuclear option.’’
But Democrats said that Republicans’ use of the filibuster to block many of Obama’s judicial appointments left them no choice.
“It’s time to change the Senate before this institution becomes obsolete,” Senate majority leader Harry Reid said in a speech before a chamber packed with senators. “The American people believe Congress is broken; the American people believe the Senate is broken. And I believe the American people are right.”
Republicans objected furiously. They accused Democrats of making a short-sighted power grab they will regret the next time they are in the minority. They also argued the maneuver was a ploy to divert attention from the disastrous launch of Obama’s health care overhaul.
“I say to my friends on the other side of the aisle, you’ll regret this,” Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said in a speech that immediately followed Reid. “And you may regret it a lot sooner than you think.”
“The solution to this problem is at the ballot box,” he added. “We look forward to having a great election in 2014.”
Republicans also warned that Thursday’s provocation would spill over into other issues, preventing cooperation at a time when major budget and key defense issues are on the agenda.
The filibuster option remains in place on legislative issues, meaning that Republicans could still block Democratic priorities, as they did with gun control measures earlier this year.
Democrats said the immediate trigger for Thursday’s vote was a Republican filibuster of three of Obama’s nominees in recent weeks to fill vacancies on the US Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia.
Shortly after the vote to change the rules, the Senate voted 55-to-43 to shut off debate on one of those nominees, Patricia Millett, who is now expected to gain formal confirmation.
The Senate is also planning to move forward on two other nominees for that court.
President Obama praised the action, criticizing “an unprecedented pattern of obstruction” of his nominees.
“I realize that neither party has been blameless for these tactics. They developed over the years,” Obama said in the White House briefing room. “But today’s pattern of obstruction, it just isn’t normal. It’s not what our founders envisioned. A deliberate and determined effort to obstruct everything, no matter what the merits, just to refight the results of an election is not normal.”
Several times in recent years there have been other moves to use the “nuclear option,” but each time a deal was cut at the last minute. In July, for example, Democrats agreed to back off the threat when Republicans agreed to allow a vote on several of Obama’s nominees.
Several Republican senators — including Susan Collins of Maine and John McCain of Arizona — said they had been trying in vain to forge a similar compromise with Democrats to end the stand-off over the district court judges.
“I’m not angry. I’m just very sad,” McCain said.
He blamed newer Democrats who had never served in the minority — 33 out of the 55 senators in the Democratic caucus have never served in the minority — for pushing the changes through.
“So they are now having the majority ride roughshod over the minority in betrayal of our entire recent history of the United States Senate,” he said.
The rule change has the potential to radically alter the dynamics in a Senate that considers itself the world’s greatest deliberative body, a sanctum where the rights of the minority party — indeed, even individual senators — to exercise power are institutionalized in arcane rules.
But in recent years the sense of decorum that accompanied those traditions has faded, particularly as Republicans have stood in lockstep opposition to Obama’s nominees.
Even with the removal of the filibuster option, there are still other ways for senators to delay judicial nominations, such as an old practice that allows home-state senators to block action on a nominee by not returning blue slips of paper containing their opinion on the nominee’s suitability to the Judiciary Committee.
The filibuster was first used in the 1800s and formally enshrined in Senate rules in 1917.
Its use was portrayed in the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” when Jimmy Stewart, playing a senator, holds the senate floor to prevent a vote to build a dam on the site of a proposed boy’s camp. Such “talking filibusters’’ are exceedingly rare now. Still, the practice of using rules to block Senate action has been integral in the Senate’s identity, described by George Washington as the saucer that cools the hot tea of the House.
Filibusters were used only in the most extreme circumstances for decades, but that began to change in modern times and reached historic highs after Obama assumed office in 2009.
Republicans said taking away the filibuster for most nominees may give Democrats their way in the near term, but it would force each party to become even more entrenched.
“The last time the Democrats decided they were going to do something all by themselves it was Obamacare,” said Senator Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican. “And I’m pretty sure they regret doing it that way and my guess is they’ll regret this at some point too.”
But Reid said there have been 168 filibusters of presidential nominees in history; half of those have come under Obama.
In addition to judicial nominees, Republicans have blocked nominees for the consumer protection board. They also recently blocked a vote on Representative Mel Watt, a North Carolina Democrat nominated by Obama to be the director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency.
It was the first time since 1843 that a sitting member of Congress had been rejected for a major executive branch position.
Fifty-two Democrats voted to upend the filibuster; 45 Republicans and three Democrats opposed it. Both Massachusetts senators, Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey, supported the move.
“The Republicans tried to win the presidency. They lost,” Warren said in an interview. “The response has been to block up or down votes on vital nominees, not because the nominees are unqualified, but because they don’t like who is president.”
Warren said “of course I’m worried” about what would happen if Republicans recapture the Senate majority and will be in a position to bypass a Democratic minority. But she said senators have a responsibility to “advise and consent’’ on the president’s nominees under the US Constitution.
“Every senator takes an oath of office promising to support and defend the constitution,” she said. “No senator takes an oath to protect the filibuster.”
Markey, who served nearly 37 years in the House, said the Senate was beginning to resemble the House, with its “Tea Party instincts.”
“I’m afraid it has seeped into the Senate and my hope is we can restore the Senate to its traditional role,” he said.
Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, said the minority should have even fewer rights to block legislation.
“We all have heard the story of President Washington saying the Senate is a cooling saucer, but never was the Senate intended to be a deep freeze,” Merkley said. “Yet that is what it has become.”
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Noah Bierman can be reached at email@example.com.