Corey Robin sums it up:
Today, the United States Senate voted to eliminate the filibuster for most presidential nominees. That decision does not apply to legislation or Supreme Court nominees. [...]
But what does the vote actually mean? As Phil Klinkner explained to me, and as this old Washington Post piece confirms, before this vote, senators representing a mere 11% of the population could block all presidential appointments and all legislation.
From now on, senators representing a mere 17% of the population can block most presidential appointments; senators representing 11% can still block all legislation and all Supreme Court nominees.
It’s no secret that I consider this good news. Obama won two elections; he gets to have his nominees voted on.
Since the House is blocking all Democratic legislation, the continuing existence of the filibuster for legislation won’t matter anytime soon. (And as soon as it matters, it’ll be nuked as well). But why retain the filibuster for Supreme Court justices? It’s not because Democrats believe they’ll be able to filibuster GOP Supreme Court nominees – it’s very clear that Republicans won’t allow that. From today’s Washington Post:
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, warned Democrats against the rule change on Wednesday, saying that if the GOP reclaimed the Senate majority, Republicans would further alter the rules to include Supreme Court nominees, so that Democrats could not filibuster a Republican pick for the nation’s highest court.
For that matter, if the Republicans filibuster an Obama Supreme Court nominee, the Democrats will just use “the nuclear option” – as long as that nominee is acceptable to the five most right-wing Democratic Senators.
And that is, I suspect, part of why the filibuster was retained for SCOTUS nominees – to make it harder for liberal Democrats to pressure Obama to nominate a liberal to the Supreme Court.
More analysis of today’s news:
The rise of the filibuster and the death of the filibuster can be traced to the same fundamental cause: Party polarization. Before the two parties became reasonably unified and disciplined ideological combatants, filibusters were rarely used as a tactic of inter-party warfare because each political party had both members who supported and opposed the bills in question. As that era waned, the filibuster became constant because parties could agree on what to oppose. But that’s also why the filibuster’s days were (and are) numbered: The majority party agrees on what to support, and continual filibusters against those items increase the majority party’s anger at the filibuster itself. [...]
Today, the political system changed its rules to work more smoothly in an age of sharply polarized parties. If American politics is to avoid collapsing into complete dysfunction in the years to come, more changes like this one will likely be needed.
The three are: “Blue slips,” filibusters on legislation, and pointless procedural delays.
Elections don’t always have consequences, but they should. You can’t judge a party’s agenda if they don’t get a chance to actually implement. Judicial and executive appointments are indispensable to that endeavor. If you don’t want to even have the experiment, if you don’t like being in the minority, win the damn election—which is another way of saying, make the case to the American people.
The real reason Democrats were so eager to confirm Obama’s DC Circuit nominees, and Republicans were so desperate to block them, is that the court’s current conservative majority has repeatedly blocked the president’s agenda. Since most of the federal bureaucracy resides in DC, the DC Circuit is tasked with assessing the constitutionality of federal rules and regulations. Conservatives on the court have neutered much of Dodd-Frank, the post-recession financial reform bill that was meant to keep banks in check. The court also overturned Obama’s ability to appoint staff while Congress is out of town and struck down state environmental rules that would have regulated emissions from other states.
…the constant use of the filibuster against political appointments made it extraordinarily difficult for the White House to fire anyone because they didn’t know whether they’d be able to appoint a replacement — or, if they could appoint a replacement, who Republicans would actually accept. And the more political controversy there was around an issue the more dangerous a personnel change became.