Obama praises modest Senate filibuster deal that Republicans call ‘good news’

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
Font Size:

President Barack Obama used a late-night statement to effusively praise a minor change in Senate’s rules for debating judicial nominees, even though progressive groups were disappointed and conservative groups were pleased by the bipartisan deal.

“I am hopeful that today’s bipartisan agreement will pave the way for the Senate to take meaningful action in the days and weeks ahead,” Obama said in a statement released late Thursday.

He also claimed credit for the deal.

“In my State of the Union [address] last year, I urged Congress to take steps to fix the way they do business. … And today, I am pleased that a bipartisan group of senators has agreed to take action,” he said.

But the actual changes are so modest that they’ve being slammed by progressive advocacy groups, and have been praised by mainstream conservative advocates.

“For those of us concerned about [Obama’s] judicial nominations, the takeaway from today’s filibuster agreement is that the judicial filibuster survived untouched,” except for a minor change to debate over the most junior rank of federal judges, according to a statement from Curt Levey, the executive director of the Committee For Justice.

The committee supports judges who accept the Constitution’s framework of limited government, and is now pushing GOP senators to block some of Obama’s most progressive judges.

The deal is “good news … [because] the GOP may need to use the judicial filibuster if any of the five center-right Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court retire during President Obama’s second term,” Levey wrote.

Moreover, progressive groups slammed the deal, which the Democrat’s majority leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, negotiated with the Republican leader, Mitch McConnell.

The new rules can also speed debate over pending legislation, if the two majority and minority leaders approve the speed-up. However, the rule still allow a minority to extend debate on a bill indefinitely, unless 60 Senators support a “cloture” vote to end the the debate.

“We remain disappointed that circuit court nominations remain subject to the kind of destructive obstruction that has characterized President Obama’s first term,” said a statement from Nan Aron, director of the Alliance For Justice, a progressive group that lobbies for progressive judges.

“This agreement holds out hope that some degree of comity may now return to the Senate for district court nominees, but at the same time we urge Senate leaders to use every tool at their disposal to prevent the widespread obstruction of circuit court nominees that has characterized the past four years,” Aron said.

The deal’s term allow GOP senators to slow the debate and approval of people nominated by Obama to the Supreme Court and to the important federal appeals courts.

But it streamlines debate over Senate approval of lower-ranking judges, by limiting the hours allowed for floor debates on those judges to two hours, rather than 30 hours.

The deal is disappointing for progressives who had hoped Reid would use his 10-vote majority to shoulder through rules that would sideline the GOP’s 45 senators.

Under long-standing rules, the Senators in the minority party can extend debate and slow votes, giving them some ability to squeeze concessions from the majority party.

The rules have survived several streamlining efforts pushed since the 1990s. They survive largely because some of the senators in the majority party want to preserve those rules for when they lose power and become the Senate’s minority.

However, the statement from Obama, released late Jan. 24, praised the changes and magnified their significance.

“Too often over the past four years, a single senator or a handful of senators has been able to unilaterally block or delay bipartisan legislation for the sole purpose of making a political point,” Obama said, dismissing the priorities of elected GOP senators.

“At a time when we face critical decisions on a whole range of issues – from preventing further gun violence, to reforming our broken immigration system, to getting our fiscal house in order and creating good paying jobs – we cannot afford unnecessary obstruction.” he said.

Despite Obama’s endorsement of the bipartisan deal, his statement did include a paragraph recognizing the changes only apply to debate over lower-court judges, whose decisions are routinely trumped by senior judges.

“I also want to thank leaders in Congress for changing the Senate rules in an effort to resurrect the longstanding tradition of considering consensus district court judicial nominations on a more routine basis.”

And his statement also included a sentence showing the modest changes do not apply to more senior judges.

“Today’s reforms are a positive step towards a fairer and more efficient system of considering district court nominees, and I urge the Senate to treat all of my judicial nominees in the same spirit.”

Follow Neil on Twitter