Washington, DC (CNN) — The Democratic-controlled Senate on Thursday voted to invoke the so-called nuclear option out of frustration over Republicans who have been blocking President Barack Obama's nominees.
The controversial move is a rules change that could make a partisan environment even more divisive because it takes away a sacrosanct right for any party in the Senate minority--the right to filibuster.
Under the old rules it took 60 votes to break a filibuster. The change now allows most filibusters of Obama nominees to be stopped with 51 votes--a simple Senate majority.
The rules change only applies to executive and judicial nominees, not Supreme Court nominees.
Typically 67 votes are required to change Senate rules, but under the nuclear option, Democrats - who control the chamber with a 55-45 majority - changed those rules with a simple majority vote.
"It's time to get the Senate working again," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on the Senate floor. "Not for the good of the current Democratic majority or some future Republican majority, but for the good of the United States of America. It's time to change. It's time to change the Senate before this institution becomes obsolete.
The move came about after Republicans blocked three judicial nominees to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, known as the highest court in the land after the Supreme Court.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Reid "promised over and over again that he wouldn't break the rules of the Senate to change the Senate."
"When Democrats were in the minority they argued strenuously for the very thing they now say we will have to do without, namely the right to extend a debate on lifetime appointments. In other words they believe that one set of rules should apply to them and another set to everybody else," he added.
Until now, Reid hadn't necessarily had support from enough of his own Democratic caucus to pass a rules change. Some Democratic senators were reluctant to change the rules--because of reverence for the institution and, more importantly, because they know Democrats will not always be in the majority.
The beauty of the way the Senate works, as opposed to the House, is that the minority has more power. The filibuster, a 60 vote hurdle, was one of the biggest weapons in the minority's arsenal.
But Senate veterans like Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California who had been opposed to the nuclear option - changing Senate rules - recently changed their minds. Feinstein and others, like fellow Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, said things are so broken in Washington that the nuclear option was the only way to fix it.
Many Republicans argued Democrats were just trying to manufacture a crisis in order to create a distraction from the Obamacare rollout debacle.
"Sounds to me like Harry Reid is trying to change the subject and if I were taking all the incoming fire that he is taking over Obamacare I'd try to change the subject too," House Speaker John Boehner said in his weekly press conference.
"This changes everything, this changes everything," Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, told reporters on Capitol Hill.
Vice President Joe Biden, who as Senate President can be the tie-breaking vote, said Thursday he supports the nuclear option.
In 2005, the then majority Repubicans threatened the nuclear option to prevent Democratic filibusters of President George W. Bush's judicial nominees. The confrontation was averted thanks to an agreement by a bipartisan group of 14 senators.