Senate Democrats eased the way for swift approval of President Barack Obama's current and future nominees on Thursday, voting unilaterally to overturn decades of Senate precedent and undermine Republicans' ability to block final votes.
The 52-48 vote to undercut filibuster rules on presidential appointees capped more than a decade of struggle in which presidents from both parties complained about delays in confirming appointees, particularly to federal courts.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who spearheaded the movement, accused Republicans of "unbelievable, unprecedented obstruction" of Obama's selections to fill court vacancies and other offices.
"It's time to change the Senate before this institution becomes obsolete," he said.
His Republican counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, accused Democrats of exercising raw power and said they would regret it when political fortunes shifted.
He likened the effort to the president's since-discredited promise that Americans who like their health care can keep it under "Obamacare"; McConnell noted that Reid promised last summer he wouldn't seek to change the process for approving appointees.
"He may as well just have said, 'If you like the rules of the Senate, you can keep them,'" McConnell said.
At issue was a rule that can require a 60-vote majority to assure a yes-or-no vote on presidential nominees to the courts or to cabinet departments or other agencies.
Under a parliamentary maneuver scripted in advance, Democrats led by Reid sought to change proceedings so that only a simple majority was required to clear the way for a final vote.
Supreme Court nominations are exempt from the change and subject to a traditional filibuster, the term used to describe the 60-vote requirement to limit debate, as would other traditional legislation handled by the Senate. Nevertheless, some congressional watchers predict it's the opening volley in a movement to kill the filibuster altogether.
The blocking maneuver was powerful only in that it went unchallenged. That agreement has now been discarded.
Filibusters were rare for most the 20th century and have become commonplace as the parties have become more polarized and unified in their opposition to certain nominees and legislation.
After the vote, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who has served in the Senate since 1985 and has announced his retirement, said he had waited 18 years for that day and explicitly called for further reforms.
"We used the rules to make sure the Senate can function," he said. "Now we need to take it a step farther and change the filibuster rules on legislation."
Obama too cheered the move by Senate Democrats, emphasizing that the filibuster had too long been abused by the minority to prevent even routine matters of government from moving forward — something he blamed on both parties.
"Enough is enough," he told reporters. "The American people's business is too important to fall prey day after day to Washington politics."
Although Thursday's proceedings do not affect legislative filibusters, Obama took the opportunity to tick off a series of his agenda items that were thwarted because they were not able to garner a supermajority in the Senate, from gun control to a jobs bills to the Dream Act.
Other lawmakers were less jubilant. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. echoed McConnell and called it "a sad day" and said Democrats' hands were forced by the unprecedented obstruction in the Senate.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. warned that Democrats would rue that day when they became the minority party in the Senate.
"They will pay a very, very heavy price for it," he told reporters.
The change was the farthest reaching since 1975, when a two-thirds requirement for cutting off filibusters against legislation and all nominations was lowered to 60 votes.
Before the vote, two dozen groups, including the AFL-CIO and the Sierra Club, wrote lawmakers Wednesday supporting the change, saying that "rampant, ideology-based obstructionism is the new norm in the U.S. Senate."
Last summer, Democrats dropped threats to rewrite Senate rules after Republicans agreed to supply enough votes to end filibusters against Obama's nominees to the National Labor Relations Board as well as nominees to head the Environmental Protection Agency, the Labor Department and other agencies.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press