Something very important happened yesterday, and though I am in no way an expert on the subject, I think I ought at least to take some note of it. The Senate, by a vote of 52-48, ended the practice of filibustering Administration appointments and nominations for Federal District Court and Circuit Court [but not Supreme Court] judgeships. This will make it possible for Obama's nominations to the DC Circuit to be confirmed quickly, and should permit him, if he can get his act together, to fill all of the vacancies in the Federal judgeships before the 2014 elections, when the Democrats might [but probably won't] lose control of the Senate. This is a huge development, bigger even than the difficulties with the roll-out of the insurance exchanges mandated by the Affordable Care Act. The judgeships are lifetime appointments, which means that Obama can put his stamp on the federal judiciary for decades to come.
How can a vote of 52-48 overturn filibustering, which requires a cloture vote of 60? Herewith a little inside baseball. Since I am only marginally knowledgeable about all of this, I welcome corrections from those better informed. Briefly, a change of the rules of the Senate requires a two-thirds vote, virtually impossible to put together. But there is a way around that fact. Here, as I understand it, is what happened yesterday.
The Senate is presided over by the Presiding Officer, who is, by Constitutional mandate, the Vice-President. In his absence, which is to say almost always, a senator from the majority party is handed the job of sitting in the Senate President's chair and doing whatever the Senate parliamentarian tells him or her to do. It is a terminally boring assignment whose principal challenge is appearing to be awake. Yesterday, not at all by accident, the senator presiding was Patrick Leahy, who is Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. A Democratic Senator [Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, I think] posed a parliamentary inquiry to the Chair, viz., Are Presidential nominations for Administrative posts and District and Circuit Court judgeships subject to a filibuster? Leahy quite properly ruled, as presiding officer, that according to the rules the answer is yes. Reid then challenged the ruling of the Chair. A challenge to a ruling of the Chair is non-debatable and requires only a majority vote to be sustained. Reid had the votes [this is, of course, the crucial point -- it has taken a long time and an outrageous use of the filibuster to get fifty-one Democratic senators to agree to limit the filibuster.] The Chair was overruled, 52-48, and Presto, the rules were effectively changed, at least for as long as the Democrats control the Presidency and the Senate.
This alteration of the rules does not alter the ability of the Republicans to block any legislation they wish by threatening a filibuster, nor does it apply to any future Supreme Court nominations Obama may be lucky enough to have the opportunity to make.