WASHINGTON (AP) — By limiting the ability of Republicans to block President Barack Obama's nominees, Senate Democrats sought to placate the party's core liberal activists dispirited by the troubled rollout of the health care overhaul and government snooping ahead of midterm elections in which a president's party typically loses seats in Congress.
Republicans insist that the move engineered by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on Thursday won't matter in next year's congressional races as the political fallout over Obama's health care law registers with voters. Senate Democrats voted unilaterally to change the Senate's filibuster practices and take away the minority party's ability to block presidential nominees for key appellate judgeships and top federal agency posts with just 40 or 41 votes.
With the change, Democrats scored points with liberal groups that can deliver money and mobilization in 2014 congressional races with control of the House and 21 Democratic and 14 Republican Senate seats at stake. Seven of the those Senate seats now held by Democrats are in states that Obama lost in 2012 to Republican Mitt Romney, some by 15 percentage points or more.
"Senate Democrats have rightly reformed the filibuster, and the grassroots base of the Democratic Party have their back for taking this important stand," said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the 1.2 million-strong Democracy for America. The group tends to favor challengers, but Chamberlain said in an interview that the rules change would be a factor in endorsements and support.
"There's no question our members are extremely excited. They've been fighting for years," Chamberlain said after his group along with Credo Action and Daily Kos Action delivered more than 285,000 petitions to Reid. Combined, Chamberlain said, they represent 5 million members.
The Senate action comes as approval of Obama has dropped to the lowest level in his five years in office. Even support for him among Democrats is falling. Millions of canceled health care policies and problems with the health care website have taken a considerable toll on his standing. Liberals have been unnerved by the National Security Agency spying, with a steady stream of disclosures about emails and Internet usage subject to government prying.
A CBS News poll released this week found Obama's approval rating at 37 percent a year after he won re-election, with only 47 percent saying they were confident in his ability to manage the federal government effectively. Among Democrats, his approval has dropped from 81 percent in October to 73 percent in mid-November.
One of the leaders of the Senate push to change the rules, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said the move was what the American people wanted.
"Never was the Senate intended to be a deep freeze," said Merkley, who faces re-election next year.
Republicans argue that Democrats, particularly the more vulnerable incumbents in Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina and Alaska, won't be able to escape the blowback from the health care woes that will extend to senators who had been considered relatively safe bets for re-election.
The GOP insists that the playing field next year now extends to open seats in Michigan as well as races in Colorado, Minnesota and New Hampshire. Democrats hold a 55-45 edge in the Senate; Republicans need six seats to capture the majority. They shrugged off the rules changes as simply something for the Obama White House and the party's core voters.
"I think a lot of this is base driven, but really Obama-driven," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is up for re-election next year.
Said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo, the third-ranking Senate Republican: "This is obviously an effort from Democrats to try and distract from the terrible, failed health care law."
His point was echoed by nearly every Senate Republican who linked Reid's rule changes to what they described as his heavy-handed maneuvering in 2009 to muscle the health care bill through Congress. They said "Obamacare" would be the election-year albatross for the Democrats.
"Obamacare 2," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who faces a Republican challenger in his re-election bid next year.
The Senate Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said the solution to the rules change is an election.
"It's at the ballot box. We look forward to having a great election in 2014," McConnell told reporters.
Thirty-one of the Senate Democrats, many of whom pushed the rules changes, have never served in the minority party. McConnell signaled that they might find themselves in that place in 2015.