When senators arrived in the Capitol today, it took 60 votes to confirm presidential nominees. When they left, it only took 51 after changing Senate rules for the first time in decades.
The Senate voted 52 to 48 to change the rules to allow the president's judicial and executive nominees to be confirmed with only 51 votes. Supreme Court nominees are exempt from the change and still subject to the 60-vote threshold.
The Senate vote effectively eliminates the use of filibusters against presidential nominees, with Democrats advancing the most significant change in Senate rules in more than a generation to break a logjam of President Obama's blocked nominees.
Leaders of both parties have threatened for years to make historic changes in Senate rules, but have always stopped short because compromise – and fear of the consequences – has prevailed. The procedural move became known as the "nuclear option," because it was always seen as a final legislative tool available to end the gridlock.
"This is the way it has to be," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said. "The Senate has changed."
President Obama lauded Senate Democrats' historic change of filibuster rules, saying the partisan obstruction in Congress "just isn't normal."
"Over the past five years, we've seen an unprecedented pattern of obstruction in Congress that's prevented too much of the American people's business from getting done," the president told reporters at the White House. "A deliberate and determined effort to obstruct everything, no matter what the merits, just to refight the result of an election is not normal, and for the sake of future generations, we can't let it become normal."
The president's support for the rule change comes eight years after then-Senator Obama opposed such a measure, warning in 2005 that "the bitterness and the gridlock will only get worse" if the rules were changed.
"I'm a former senator. So is my vice president. We both value any Senate's duty to advise and consent. It's important and we take that very seriously," the president said today. "But a few now refuse to treat that duty of advise and consent with the respect that it deserves. It's no longer used in a responsible way to govern. It's rather used as a reckless and relentless tool to grind all business to a halt."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell expressed frustration after today's vote, calling it "a sad day in the history of the Senate."
"This was nothing more than a power grab in order to advance the Obama administration's regulatory agenda," McConnell said at a news conference. "They just broke the Senate rules in order to exercise the power grab."
Democrats went to work almost immediately, using the new rule in a 55-43 vote to invoke cloture and end debate on President Obama's stalled nomination of Patricia Millett as a judge to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Democrats had failed last month to break a GOP filibuster on Millett.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., called today's rule change the "most important and most dangerous restructuring of Senate rules since Thomas Jefferson wrote them." McConnell declined to say whether he would adhere to the new filibuster rules if Republicans regain the majority of the Senate.
"The solution to this problem is an election. The solution to this problem is at the ballot box. We look forward to having a great election in 2014," McConnell said.
Majority Leader Harry Reid had warned earler today that he was prepared to make good on his threat to change the rules of the Senate to thwart Republican attempts to filibuster President Obama's nominees, declaring, "It's time to change the Senate before this institution becomes obsolete."
"It's time to get the Senate working again," Reid, D-Nev., said on the Senate floor. "Not for the good of the Democratic majority, but for the good of the United States of America." He was poised to invoke the so-called nuclear option, effectively eliminating the minority party's ability to filibuster judicial and executive nominees. Republicans have in recent weeks blocked three appointments to a key federal appeals court, prompting Reid to call a vote to change long-standing Senate rules on the filibuster.
"This is not about Democrats versus Republicans," Reid said. "This is about making Washington work, regardless of who is in the White House."
While Reid said neither party's hands "are clean on this issue," he placed blame on Republicans for repeatedly opposing judicial and executive branch nominees. "The American people believe Congress is broken. The American people believe the Senate is broken," Reid said. "I believe the American people are right."
McConnell called it a "power grab" and said Democrats were trying to distract Americans from the failed rollout of the Affordable Care Act. He called the dispute a "fake fight over judges."
"Once again, Senate Democrats are threatening to break the rules of the Senate to change the rules of the Senate," McConnell said. "Over what? Over what?"