WASHINGTON — The Senate approved the most fundamental alteration of its rules in more than a generation Thursday, ending the minority party's ability to filibuster most presidential nominees in response to the partisan gridlock that has plagued Congress for much of the Obama administration.
Furious Republicans accused Democrats of a power grab, warning them that they would deeply regret their action if they lose control of the Senate next year and the White House in years to come. Invoking the Founding Fathers and the meaning of the Constitution, Republicans said Democrats were trampling the minority rights the framers intended to protect.
But when the vote was called, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the majority leader who was initially reluctant to force the issue, prevailed 52-48.
Under the change, the Senate will be able to cut off debate on executive and judicial branch nominees with a simple majority rather than rounding up a supermajority of 60 votes. The new precedent does not apply to Supreme Court nominations or legislation itself.
It represented the culmination of years of frustration over what Democrats denounced as a Republican campaign to stall the machinery of Congress, stymie President Barack Obama's agenda and block his picks to Cabinet posts and federal judgeships.
After repeatedly threatening to change the filibuster, Reid decided to follow through when Republicans refused this week to back down from their effort to keep Obama from filling any of three vacancies on the U.S. Court of Appeals District of Columbia Circuit, the most powerful appeals court in the country.
This was the final straw for some Democratic holdouts against limiting the filibuster, providing Reid with the votes to impose a new confirmation standard certain to reverberate through the Senate for years.
"There has been unbelievable, unprecedented obstruction," Reid said as he set in motion the steps for the vote Thursday. "The Senate is a living thing, and to survive it must change as it has over the history of this great country. To the average American, adapting the rules to make the Senate work again is just common sense."
Republicans accused Democrats of irreparably damaging the character of an institution that in many ways still operates as it did in the 19th century and of disregarding the constitutional prerogative of the Senate as a body of "advice and consent" on presidential nominations.
"You think this is in the best interest of the United States Senate and the American people?" asked the Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., sounding incredulous.
"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," he added.
Obama applauded the move.
"Today's pattern of obstruction, it just isn't normal," he told reporters at the White House. "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, and for the sake of future generations we can't let it become normal."
The changes will apply to all 1,183 executive branch nominations that require Senate confirmation — not just Cabinet positions but also hundreds of high- and midlevel federal agency jobs and government board seats.
This fight was a climax to the bitter debate between the parties over electoral mandates and the consequences of presidential elections. Republicans, through their frequent use of the various roadblocks that congressional procedure affords them, have routinely thwarted Democrats. Democrats, in turn, have accused Republicans of effectively trying to nullify the results of a presidential election they lost, whether by trying to dismantle Obama's health care law or keep him from filling his Cabinet.
Republicans saw their battle as fighting an overzealous president who, left to his own devices, would stack a powerful and underworked D.C. Circuit appeals court with judges sympathetic to his vision of big-government liberalism.
The court is of immense political importance to both parties because it often decides questions involving White House and federal agency policy.
Its eight judges are divided evenly between Democratic and Republican presidential appointees.
Republicans proposed eliminating three of its 11 full-time seats. When Democrats balked, the Republicans refused to confirm any more judges, saying they were exercising their constitutional check against the executive.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said Democrats had undercut the minority party's rights forever.
"We have weakened this body permanently, undermined it for the sake of an incompetent administration," he said. "What a tragedy."
With the filibuster rules now rewritten, the Senate can proceed with approving a backlog of presidential nominations.
There are now 59 nominees to executive branch positions and 17 nominees to the federal judiciary awaiting confirmation votes. The Senate acted immediately on Thursday when it voted with just 55 senators affirming to move forward on the nomination of Patricia Millett, a Washington lawyer nominated to the Washington appeals court. Two other nominees to that court, Cornelia T.L. Pillard and Robert L. Wilkins, are expected to be confirmed when the Senate returns from its Thanksgiving recess.
The historic nature of the vote was not lost on senators. The gravity of the situation was reflected in an unusual scene on the Senate floor: Nearly all 100 senators were in their seats, rapt, as their two leaders debated.
As the two men went back and forth, McConnell appeared to realize there was no way to persuade Reid to change his mind. As many Democrats wore large grins, Republicans looked dour as they lost on a futile, last-ditch parliamentary attempt by McConnell to overrule the majority vote.
When McConnell left the chamber, he said, "I think it's a time to be sad about what's been done to the United States Senate."