Washington Digest: Democrats force change in filibuster

WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats forced a change in Senate rules last week to eliminate filibusters on most presidential nominees.

Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the change was needed to fix a system that has produced unprecedented obstruction of many of President Barack Obama’s choices to run federal agencies and sit on the more important courts.

Republicans protested doing away with the filibuster, which was accomplished through the use of a rare procedural maneuver. They said it amounted to a power grab that will only deepen partisanship and harsh feelings in the Senate.

The change was accomplished through a 52-48 vote dubbed “the nuclear option” because it was considered such an extreme move.

It overturned a significant precedent of a body that had prided itself on the rights it granted senators in the minority.

The new rules will apply to nominations to executive branch jobs and federal courts but not the Supreme Court.

They also do not apply to legislation, where senators still would be able to hold up bills until opponents come up with 60 votes.

Three Democrats voted with all Senate Republicans to oppose the rules change. They warned it will benefit Democrats and Obama in the short term, but could pave the way for less desirable results for their side whenever Republicans regain control of the Senate.

Reid voted for the “nuclear option.” Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., voted against it.


Senators continued to debate the Guantanamo Bay prison camp that still holds 164 terrorism detainees.

An annual defense policy bill written by Democrats provides Obama with more flexibility to transfer detainees to the mainland but stops short of closing the camp, which critics argue is a blight on the U.S. reputation.

Voting 43-55, senators killed a Republican amendment that would continue for another year a ban on transferring detainees.

Speaking in favor of the amendment, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said the remaining prisoners are the “meanest, nastiest,” saying, “Why should we allow them to come to the United States?”

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said the ban “has made it more difficult to try detainees for their crimes and nearly impossible to return them to their home countries.”

Heller voted to continue the ban on Guantanamo transfers. Reid voted to lift the ban.


The House passed several Republican bills to promote energy exploration, none of which was expected to be taken up in the Senate.

Lawmakers voted 228-192 to ease permitting for oil and gas drilling on federal lands. The bill would require the Interior Department to ensure at least 25 percent of eligible public land is available for energy leasing.

The bill also would spend $50 million in grants for states to assess the potential of federal lands for energy exploration, and allow the government to impose fees to speed permits.

Republicans said the strategy would create jobs.

Democrats who opposed the bill said it tilted to oil and gas at the expense of renewable energy and environmental safeguards.

White House officials said Obama would veto the bill, which they said would limit the federal government’s ability to regulate energy production.

Reps. Joe Heck and Mark Amodei, both R-Nev., voted for the bill. Reps. Steven Horsford and Dina Titus, both D-Nev., voted against it.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.