By abusing the filibuster to an unprecedented degree, Senate Republicans brought about the reasonable changes they are now fuming over. Throughout President Barack Obama's administration, Republicans have used the filibuster to keep judicial seats vacant and federal agencies leaderless by denying nominees an up-or-down vote for confirmation. This is contrary to the Senate's constitutional advise-and-consent role, and it erodes the authority of the president. Democrats were backed into a corner, and limiting use of the filibuster is a necessary change.
The Senate changed its rules on the filibuster on Thursday so that a simple majority of 51 votes and not a supermajority of 60 votes is required to end debate on the president's executive and judicial nominees. The change doesn't apply to U.S. Supreme Court nominations or to legislation, which would still need 60 votes for cloture. But even this limited change fundamentally alters the way the Senate operates, and it was not taken lightly.
For years, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tried to find a bipartisan compromise to end the gridlock, but each time the obstruction returned. Reid knows that putting limits on the filibuster will make the Senate more fiercely partisan like the House, where the minority party at times seems consigned to the role of potted plant. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned Democrats they would come to regret the move if Republicans regain the majority. But with Republicans deciding that their go-to governing strategy was to block Obama's appointees no matter their merits or qualifications, there was really no choice.
Reid could not ignore the decision by Senate Republicans to indefinitely block three judicial nominees to the D.C. Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals to prevent the president from shifting the conservative tilt of that powerful appellate court. Leaving those seats vacant for the duration of the president's term would have abrogated the voters' will in electing Obama as president. Now, with the filibuster changes, the Senate is free to move on the 17 nominees to the federal judiciary and the 59 nominees to the executive branch who have been waiting for confirmation votes.
Both parties, when out of the majority, have used the filibuster to assert some power. But never before had the rule been used with such regularity against presidential nominations. Collectively, Obama's picks have faced half of all filibusters against nominees in the entire history of the Senate. Republicans used the filibuster to force policy changes they couldn't win through the legislative process. Obama's pick to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was held up for years because Republicans didn't like the agency itself. That is not how the Constitution framers envisioned the Senate would operate. In fact, presidential nominees were hardly ever filibustered before the 1970s.
Senate Republicans promise to use every remaining procedural tool to gum up the Senate. What's missing is a recognition that their constituents sent them to Washington to do what is best for the country, not only their political party.