When Democrats invoked the nuclear option last November — lowering the cloture threshold on nearly all nominations from 60 votes to 51 votes — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a warning. "You'll regret this, and you may regret this a lot sooner than you think."
Six and a half months later, the verdict is in — Democrats regret nothing. In some ways, the nomination process has become more time-consuming. But Democrats are getting the nominees they want — especially federal judges. Here's what life in a post-nuclear Senate is like:
1) There's a comparable amount of nominees being confirmed — but many more are judges
Contrary to some predictions, the GOP hasn't reacted to the rules change by slowing the confirmation process to a crawl. The above chart seems to indicate that fewer nominees have been confirmed overall — but the Senate was in session for fewer days in the latter 6 months. When one accounts for that, the confirmation pace seems unchanged — the Senate has confirmed about 2 nominees for each session day.
The big change, though, is how many of those confirmed nominees are now federal judges with lifetime appointments. Compared to most executive branch nominees, who will serve only two and a half more years, judges seem more consequential to Obama's legacy. And in a post-nuclear Senate, far more are getting through. Here are the numbers broken down by district courts and appellate courts:
2) Every judge is now being filibustered by Republicans
3) An earlier rules change allowing district judges to be confirmed more quickly has proved crucial
4) On executive branch nominees, not much has changed
Back in December of last year, the Republicans first responded to the rules change by filibustering every Obama nominee. Since then, they've backed off. Now, the vast majority of executive branch nominees have gone through without a cloture vote. And every executive branch nominee except one — Debo Adegbile, Obama's pick to head the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division — has been confirmed. (7 Democrats voted against cloture for Adegbile.)
The major change is that Obama can now fill key executive branch positions with nominees he prefers, without needing Republican votes. Before the rules change, 60 votes would've been needed to confirm Janet Yellen as Federal Reserve chair, or Sylvia Mathews Burwell as HHS Secretary, or whoever Eric Shinseki's replacement as VA Secretary will be. But now Obama can be confident that those nominees will be confirmed without much difficulty — barring a mass abandonment by Democrats, as happened with Adegbile.
When Democrats pushed through this unprecedented rules change, it was very unclear what the consequences would be for the Senate. 6 months later, it seems clear that the chamber has survived. The Democrats got what they wanted, and the GOP hasn't paralyzed the chamber.
The big question is what Reid's success means for future rules changes. The 60-vote threshold still exists for legislation and Supreme Court nominations. While the GOP's control of the House means it's not particularly urgent for Democrats to reduce the threshold for filibustering legislation, a sudden Supreme Court vacancy could force another confrontation. But Binder is skeptical: "The Democrats took a pretty big step here, and the political costs were bearable in this particular case," she says. "Whether that's generalizable to other areas, it's hard to tell. I think they've gone as far as they're going to go for now."