WASHINGTON — With frustrations boiling over in the U.S. Senate, Democrats voted Thursday to change the rules so most judicial and executive nominations can be approved by a simple majority.
“It is a day of freshness for this great country of ours,” Senate majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said after the vote.
“This is not a very proud day in the history of the Senate,” Republican leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, said.
The historic change came after years of partisan conflict that predates President Barack Obama, but has worsened during his five years in office. Reid has threatened in the past few years to push the rule change that passed Thursday, but he and McConnell have struck last-minute deals to avert the move.
The change — approved by a vote of 52-48, with three Democrats joining Republicans in opposition — will allow simple majority approval for executive branch nominees and district and circuit court nominees.
Before the change, supporters were regularly required to get 60 votes in the 100-member Senate to move the process along.
Supreme Court nominations won't be affected by the change.
Hours after the change, Republicans blocked an effort to move the annual defense bill past a procedural hurdle. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, who was helping manage the bill through Senate debate, said Republicans had been denied the right to offer amendments.
And though he strongly supports the bill, Inhofe also voted against the procedural move.
Had the new rules been in place in 2012, Robert E. Bacharach, an Oklahoma City federal magistrate nominated for a seat on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, would have sailed through.
However, Republicans blocked the nomination for months — even though they didn't object to Bacharach — and he had to be renominated this year, after Obama's re-election. Bacharach was confirmed by a vote of 93-0 in February.
For Reid, the last straw came as Democrats tried to push through nominees for the federal appeals court here. Obama has nominated people for three vacancies on the court — which hears many cases related to federal laws and regulations — but Republicans contend the current caseload at the court doesn't justify any more judges.
“Gridlock has consequences, and they're terrible,” Reid said. “It's time to change the Senate before this institution becomes obsolete.”
McConnell called the move a power grab by Democrats and a way to distract people from the catastrophic rollout of health care exchanges.
“Millions of Americans are hurting because of a law Washington Democrats forced upon them and what do they do about it? They cook up some fake fight over judges that aren't even needed,” McConnell said.
Both parties have filibustered judicial and executive nominations and both have statistics meant to show that the other side is more guilty of it.
The Senate has confirmed 215 of Obama's judicial nominations and rejected only two, McConnell said.
At the White House, Obama said, “Over the six decades before I took office, only 20 presidential nominees to executive positions had to overcome filibusters. In just under five years since I took office, nearly 30 nominees have been treated this way. These are all public servants who protect our national security, look out for working families, keep our air and water clean.”
McConnell warned Reid that he may regret the move when Democrats no longer control the White House and Senate.
Reid said he wouldn't regret it.
“This is the way it has to be,” he said. “The Senate has changed.”
Republicans have been frustrated that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., routinely denies them the chance to offer amendments to legislation, and that frustration was also in evidence on Thursday as the defense bill was stalled for at least two weeks.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee, had been hoping for several amendments to the defense bill aimed at making the Pentagon more efficient. But Reid tried to move the bill without allowing votes on any amendments.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he wanted Republicans to be able to offer 25 amendments. Democrats rejected the offer and tried to cut off debate, but they failed to get the 60 votes necessary, leaving the fate of the important bill hanging while the Senate takes a two-week break.