WASHINGTON — As Democrats watched Senate Republicans use filibuster powers to thwart more and more of President Barack Obama’s agenda and nominees, they wondered how much worse it could get.
They finally reached a breaking point this past week when party leaders concluded that what they called GOP obstruction had made a mockery of American democracy.
The Senate vote Thursday to curb some filibuster powers, after years of hesitation, will go down as a singular moment. Historians may view it as an inevitable step in the relentless march of partisanship, which severely has damaged the ability of Congress to conduct even routine business.
Senate Democrats opened themselves up to future retaliation by furious Republicans in order to let Obama, a Democrat, do things many of his predecessors typically did with minimal fuss: fill executive jobs and vacant judgeships.
“They’re at peace with the idea that this president, along with future presidents, deserve to, with rare exceptions, put their own people in place,” said Jim Manley, who spoke Friday with his former boss, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
“The current situation was untenable,” Manley said, “and something had to change.”
The final straw for Democrats came when Republicans used the filibuster, which allows 41 of the 100 senators to block almost any action, to bar Obama nominees from three vacancies on a powerful federal appeals court. Republican senators didn’t pretend the nominees were unqualified, which struck some Democrats as a virtual taunt. Democrats dismissed the GOP claim that the vacancies needn’t be filled at all.
In Democrats’ eyes, the Senate’s 45 Republicans had turned democracy on its head. The party that lost the past two presidential elections and failed to win control of the Senate nonetheless was dictating who the president could or could not appoint to important government posts.
“Today’s pattern of obstruction, it just isn’t normal,” Obama said, praising the Senate’s 52-48 vote to change the rules. Republicans used the filibuster “as a reckless and relentless tool,” he said, “simply because they opposed the policies that the American people voted for in the last election.”
“Neither party has been blameless for these tactics,” the president noted. Indeed, Democrats blocked or delayed so many of President George W. Bush’s appointees that Republicans, who ran the Senate in 2005, threatened to curtail filibuster powers in much the same way Democrats have done now. A bipartisan truce halted that effort, but it didn’t last long.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky now says Obama and other Democrats will regret destroying a time-honored protection of minority rights in Congress, “perhaps a lot sooner than you think.”
“The solution to this problem is an election,” said a visibly angry McConnell. “We look forward to having a great election in 2014.”
Yet in a sharply divided society, U.S. elections often settle less than the winners had hoped.
Bush won re-election in 2004, but got nowhere trying to partly privatize Social Security. Obama was given a second term last year after defending his landmark health care law, only to find congressional Republicans as determined as ever to undo it.
House Republicans, who control their chamber by 32 seats, voted 40 times to rescind or restrict that law. In the Senate, where Republicans have a 10-seat disadvantage, they increasingly turned to the filibuster to block the president’s agenda as much as possible.
Both parties had a different view when the power structure was reversed. Republicans in 2005 threatened to curtail filibuster powers when they controlled the Senate. A bipartisan truce halted the effort. It didn’t last long.
Obama told reporters that in the 60 years before he took office, “only 20 presidential nominees to executive positions had to overcome filibusters. In just under five years since I took office, nearly 30 nominees have been treated this way.”
Now people ask whether the Senate rules change will make things better for the government and nation, or worse. Reid said it will help the country and the Senate. Others disagree, saying the quarrels will grow even hotter.
Thursday’s actions did not prevent the minority party from using filibusters to block legislation or Supreme Court nominees. Sooner or later, some activists in both parties say, those barriers will fall, too.
“It is just a matter of time — perhaps as soon as the next Congress — before one party or the other eliminates the filibuster for legislation, not just judicial appointments,” said John Ullyot, a GOP Senate aide during the 2005 filibuster debates. “The genie is out of the bottle,” he said, “and there’s no putting it back in.”
Some Republicans say they look forward to the day when a GOP president can use a simple Senate majority to revoke Obama’s 2010 health care overhaul.
In the meantime, advocates of bipartisanship fear that the rules change will snuff out any remaining hope of progress in Congress.
Former Sen. George Voinovich, an Ohio Republican who often worked with Democrats, said Republicans’ justified anger makes it highly unlikely House-Senate budget negotiators will reach even a modest accord to curb deficits and redirect spending cuts to make them less damaging.
“We’re not going to get anything,” said Voinovich, who has been urging the two-party negotiators to make courageous decisions. “The public is unbelievably upset” at the federal government, he said, and fallout from the filibuster rules change will make matters worse.
Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, now the Senate’s longest-serving member, said he resisted changing filibuster rules for years, even when fellow Democrats complained. “Yet over the past five years,” Leahy said in a floor speech Thursday, Senate Republicans resorted to obstructionism that “crossed the line from use of the Senate rules to abuse of the rules.”
The filibuster rules change will bring the Senate somewhat closer to the House, where the minority party has few powers. In many ways, however, the Senate and the nation have been growing more partisan for years as the realignment of American politics drives moderates from both parties.
The expanding Senate obstructionism, Obama said “is 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,” the president said. For future generations’ sake, he said, “we can’t let it become normal.”
Given the level of anger over the rules change, it may be too late.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Charles Babington covers Congress and politics for The Associated Press.