WASHINGTON — 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 venerable filibuster rules on presidential appointees capped more than a decade of struggle in which presidents of both parties complained about delays in confirming appointees, particularly to the federal courts.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., was one of only three Democrats in the Senate to oppose the measure. He joined every Senate Republican and Democrat Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan and Mark Pryor of Arkansas in voting against the measure.
In a statement distributed after the vote, Manchin agreed partisan gridlock is hampering the legislative process in Washington. But he said the rule change, "simply went too far."
"As the late, great Robert C. Byrd himself said in the months before his death, 'While I welcome needed reform, we must always be mindful of our responsibility to preserve this institution's special purpose,' " Manchin said.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said he regretted changing Senate rules. It is the only way to make sure the legislative body can ensure fair treatment of appointments and do its job, he said.
"For months now we've been operating in gridlock, unable to do our job — one that so many have forgotten is an honor and a privilege," Rockefeller said in a statement.
"And because so many have lost sight of this, Republican obstructionism has surely caused anyone to second guess their dream of entering public service."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who launched the move, also 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 switched.
He likened the effort to the president's since-discredited promise that Americans who like their health care can keep it under "Obamacare," noting 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 would be exempted from the change and subject to a traditional filibuster, the term used to describe the 60-vote requirement to limit debate.
The change is the most far-reaching since 1975, when a two-thirds requirement for cutting off filibusters against legislation and all nominations was lowered to 60 votes.
It would deliver a major blow to the GOP's ability to thwart Obama in making appointments, though Republicans have promised the same fate would await Democrats whenever the GOP recaptures the White House and Senate control.
It also could adversely affect the level of bipartisan cooperation in the Senate — a quality already in short supply in an era of divided government.