By Peter Schroeder and Erik Wasson - 11/23/13 05:47 PM EST
The left is feeling emboldened by the decision of Senate Democrats to use the nuclear option to blow up filibuster rights on confirming presidential nominees.
Liberals have long clamored for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to play hardball with Republicans, and are excited to see their demands met.
Finally, they argue, the left will see courts and agencies filled with appointees who will protect President Obama's key legislative achievements.
Democrats are also reigniting hopes for long-stalled initiatives.
“This is a big victory for the progressive agenda,” said one Senate Democratic aide. “The D.C. Circuit alone is likely to make a huge difference on a host of issues progressives care about, from women’s health to worker organizing rights to Wall Street reform and climate change.”
The Senate voted 52-48 on Thursday to change the filibuster rules so that only majority votes will be needed to move forward on procedural motions related to presidential nominations. The only exceptions are nominees to the Supreme Court.
The Senate vote was triggered by three stalled nominations to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, the second most powerful court in the country, but other nominations will also be bumped along.
At the top of the list is Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.), the president’s nominee to take over the housing regulator monitoring Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Watt is expected to lead a significant shakeup in the nation’s housing market once he takes office by pushing to assist struggling homeowners.
“It’s exciting,” said Alan Jenkins, executive director of The Opportunity Agenda, a group that pushes for affordable housing. “He has a long track record of consumer protection and civil rights.”
Another nominee held up is Ken Kopocis, who was names as the head of EPA's Office of Water in 2011. Kopocis’s inability to take his position has created pressure on the office that regulates toxins in waterways, aid Melinda Pierce of the Sierra Club.
Liberals are eager to beef up their ranks in the judicial system.
They argue conservatives worked for decades to build up the courts to their favor, and now the left can repay the favor.
“This change will go a long way toward restoring balance and ensuring that progressive priorities get a fair day in court,” said one Senate aide.
Hurdles remain for liberals and Obama to put their preferred picks on the courts.
Even if Obama wants to nominate liberals to fill future openings, he’ll need the votes of 51 Democrats to move forward, including some centrists.
Winning their votes is no sure thing, especially in an election year.
“It opens the door to a liberal, but if they overreach they’re going to have a tough time getting a simple majority,” said Brian Gardner, vice president of Washington research at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods. “The filibuster made life easier for centrist Democrats. It was a check on the administration and it prevented them from taking tough votes on nominees.”
Senate Republicans stinging from the rebuke may ramp up their efforts to stall nominees using lesser known tactics.
Republicans could refuse to provide quorums to committees trying to vote on nominees.
Or, if Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) permits it, GOP senators could hold up judicial picks in their home states via the “blue slip” process.
Traditionally, senators sign off on judicial picks in their home states by returning blue slips of paper to Leahy, who typically has required both to advance a pick.
With Republicans stinging over the rule change, these lesser-used tools could become a new battleground.
“What you might see is even greater resistance on the part of Republican home state senators to Obama even nominating anybody,” said Russell Wheeler, a visiting scholar with the Brookings Institution.
The administration will also come under pressure to nominate liberals to key administrative posts now that it faces a lower bar for confirmation.
“Republican obstruction has been used as an explanation for the failure to nominate strong, aggressive regulators who will really police Wall Street,” said Dennis Kelleher, head of the financial reform advocacy group Better Markets. “That impediment is now gone…it’s put up or shut up time.”