Senate goes 'nuclear,' Democrats approve changes to filibuster rules

The Senate has voted to change one of the chamber's most fundamental rules, invoking the so-called 'nuclear option' for executive branch and non-Supreme Court judicial nominations.

Fifty-two Democrats voted for the measure, an unprecedented change previously threatened but not invoked until Thursday. Three Democrats -- Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Mark Pryor of Arkansas -- voted with Republicans against the change. 

The vote overturned an existing rule that required a 60-vote majority for the approval of presidential nominees. Now, just a simple majority will be required for executive branch and judicial nominees except for Supreme Court picks. 

Speaking after the vote, President Barack Obama said he supports the Senate's action. 

"The vote today, I think, is an indication that a majority of senators believe as I believe that enough is enough," Obama said. "The American people’s business is far too important to keep falling prey day after day to Washington politics." 

Democratic leaders said the 'nuclear' option was the only way to break a logjam on Obama's nominees. Republicans had infuriated Democrats by blocking a series of Obama's judicial nominees, saying the president was unfairly attempting to stack the nation's courts with judges who will uphold his agenda.

“It’s time to change,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on the Senate floor as almost all members sat at their desks in the chamber. “It’s time to change the Senate before this institution becomes obsolete.”

"The age-old rules of the Senate are being used to paralyze us," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said. "The public is asking – is begging – us to act." 

Republicans vocally criticized the move as 'dangerous' and 'desperate.'


"It's a sad day in the history of the Senate," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters, calling the move a Democratic "power grab." 

The GOP also derided the vote as an attempt to distract the American public from the early failures of the Obama-backed health care law's rollout. 

The higher threshold had increasingly become the norm for even the most mundane nomination fights in recent years, as the minority had been allowed to insist that nominees clear the higher hurdle. The tactic made filibusters of presidential nominees - once rare - merely business as usual. 

“The Senate is a living thing, and to survive it must change, as it has over the history of this great country,” Reid said.

Republicans warned before the vote that the GOP will retaliate when it wins back a majority in the Senate. 

"Some of us have been around here long enough to know that sometimes the shoe is on the other foot," McConnell said before the vote, telling Democrats "you may regret this a lot sooner than you think."

The “nuclear option” threat may sound familiar to most Americans; similar crises have shaken the Senate four times in the last three years. But each time, the procedural bomb had been defused by eleventh-hour bipartisan negotiations.

Vice President Joe Biden, who served in the Senate for over 30 years, told reporters Thursday before the vote that he supported the change. But Biden was notably not on Capitol Hill; he made the comments during a visit to a D.C. eatery. 

NBC's Michael O'Brien contributed.