Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version Share this

By Miriam Raftery

November 25, 2013 (Washington D.C.) --Senate Democrats have deployed what some call the “nuclear” option:  ending the filibuster on most judicial and cabinet appointees.  The move eliminates the ability of the minority party to block an up or down vote on nominations.

The action came after Republicans  used the filibuster process to block not just controversial nominees, but virtually all of them. President Obama has had 72 of his judicial nominees blocked.  That’s by the most for any president.  By contrast, presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Bush senior each had zero nominees blocked by filibusters.  Carter and Reagan had just two each.  Clinton had 9 of his nominees blocked and the second President Bush had 7 of his nominees filibustered.

In the entire history of our nation, 23 district court nominees have been filibustered.  Twenty of those are in President Obama’s administration. In many areas, courts are backlogged and vacancies are not being filled.

Democrats say the change is needed to end gridlock in Washington and prevent a party that is out of power from holding the Senate hostage.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the change was needed because Republicans were blocking all of the President’s nominees.  He added the American people are tired of “gridlock” in Washington.

The filibuster has not been eliminated for Supreme Court nominees or for legislation, so a single Senator can still obstruct bills  or a proposed Supreme Court justice. Democrats have indicated, however, that they may consider changing those rules as well if unreasonable obstructionism continues.

Republicans have blasted the rule change, which carries a risk for Democrats. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley observed, “"The silver lining is that there will come a day when roles are reversed. When that happens, our side will likely nominate and confirm lower court and Supreme Court nominees with 51 votes …”

Republican Senator Rand Paul called Senator Reid a “bully” and said “What we need is anti-bullying legislation in the Senate.”

Just how did the filibuster tradition begin? The first known filibusters occurred in ancient Rome, when a Senator would speak for hours to block a measure from being voted upon. The British Parliament allows filibusters but requires that points raised be relevant to the topic. Some other countries, such as Australia, limit how long a single member may speak.

That’s not the case in the U.S. Senate, where a member may read the phone book if he or she so chooses.  Until last week, the rules required three-fifths of the Senate to end a filibuster.  But now a simple majority can vote to end a filibuster, allowing the President’s nominations to be voted upon.