WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats forced an historic 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 most all 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 while it will benefit Democrats and Obama in the short term, it could pave the way for less desirable results for their side whenever Republicans regain control of the Senate.
Sens. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and John Boozman, R-Ark., voted against the “nuclear option.”
Guantanamo prison debated
Senators continued to debate the Guantanamo Bay prison camp that still holds 164 terrorism detainees.
An annual defense policy bill written by Democrats provides President Barack 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” and “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.”
Pryor and Boozman voted to continue the ban on Guantanamo transfers.
House passes energy bill
The House passed several Republican bills to promote energy exploration, none of which were expected to be taken up in the Senate.
Lawmakers voted 228-192 to ease permitting for oil and gas drilling on federal lands. It 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 allows for 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. The White House said it would be vetoed.
Reps. Steve Womack, R-Rogers; Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock; Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro; and Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, voted for the bill.