(CNN)Republicans used the "nuclear option" Wednesday to jam through changes to Senate rules that will allow them to confirm most of President Donald Trump's nominees at a much faster rate.
GOP again uses nuclear option to speed Trump nominees through Senate
The partisan move was another sign of the coarsening relations between the parties on Capitol Hill and a warning that the appetite for iron-fisted majority rule is growing in the Senate not diminishing and could lead to the weakening of the legislative filibuster.
Frustrated Democrats were helpless in trying to block the GOP effort because the nuclear option allows the majority party to make the changes on a simple majority vote, not the two-thirds voted typically required for a change in Senate rules.
Democrats called it a power grab but, in the end, could complain only so much, as they first used the controversial tactic in 2013 to make it dramatically easier to break filibusters of almost all President Barack Obama's nominees -- except those to the Supreme Court -- a much more substantial curtailing of minority rights than the changes forced through by Republicans Wednesday.
The GOP first turned to the nuclear option in 2017 to make it easier to break filibusters of Trump nominees Neil Gorsuch and later Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court over stiff Democratic opposition.
Ahead of the floor action, senior senators in both parties worried the nuclear option would someday be used to weaken the cherished legislative filibuster, so the majority party could ram through significant bills as easily as the House does, where the majority party has few limitations.
Trump has called repeatedly for the elimination of the legislative filibuster, as have others on the right and left.
"The Senate has acted as a moderate body. It's been able to bridge the trends of America to go to the left or right," said Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, about the importance of a 60-vote threshold to break a legislative filibuster. "I think that's in jeopardy."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warned of a time when future majority parties would ram through their entire conservative or liberal agendas every two years.
"I know many of my colleagues on both sides share my view that this part of the Senate's DNA must never be put in jeopardy or sacrificed to serve either side's momentary partisan wins," said the Republican from Kentucky.
In a statement issued this week through the Bipartisan Policy Center, former senators Tom Daschle, a Democrat from South Dakota, and Olympia Snowe, a Republican of Maine, said this third use of the nuclear option would further deteriorate the Senate's tradition of protecting the minority and being a place where bipartisanship is required for substantial measures to pass.
"Extended debate and protection of the minority's rights are fundamental features of the United States Senate that make it the world's greatest deliberative body," they said. "Unfortunately, in recent years, each side has unilaterally employed extreme procedural tactics to lower the threshold for preventing filibusters, causing long-term damage to the institution by removing a key incentive for consensus-building."
Daschle knows firsthand about those struggles after serving as both majority leader and minority leader for 10 years ending in 2005. Snowe routinely worked across the aisle during her 18 years in the Senate that ended in 2013.
"Senators should now hit 'pause' before opening another door that could potentially lead to eliminating the filibuster altogether by a simple majority vote," they warned.
In April 2017, Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican of Maine and Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, circulated a letter with signatures from 61 bipartisan senators saying they would block any effort to get rid of the legislative filibuster. Ten of the people who signed it are now out of the Senate and the letter has not been updated with signatures from new senators so it's unclear exactly how much support there is at this time for maintaining the legislative filibuster at the 60-vote level.
The nuclear option to reduce debate time was rolling out in stages Wednesday afternoon. Once completed, the changes would mean that after filibusters for sub-Cabinet and district court nominees are broken, remaining debate would be limited to two hours, down from 30 hours now. Republicans have complained Democrats were stalling confirmation of these nominees to hurt Trump. The rule change does not impact the debate time for more senior circuit court judges or Cabinet picks.
Under the new procedures, Republicans might be able to confirm three nominees a day instead of three a week, which is the current pace.
University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias said the "practical impact" of the change will be "substantial" for Republicans because there are 131 district court vacancies that can be more quickly filled.
But Tobias said the threat of the nuclear option being used to change the legislative filibuster is a real concern.
"There has long been a Senate custom of protecting the minority and seeking consensus. The cooling saucer is clearly not working, and the Senate becomes more like the House with each detonation of the nuclear option and each evisceration of the customs that are the glue, which binds the institution of the Senate which used to be the world's greatest deliberative body," he said.