The US Senate took the potentially explosive step Thursday of changing its rules to allow executive and lower court nominees to be approved by a simple majority vote.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid invoked the move, known in Washington as the "nuclear option," to end what he considered long-standing abuses of blocking procedures that for more than two centuries have required a 60-vote threshold -- instead of a simple majority vote -- to overcome.
The so-called filibuster would remain intact for Supreme Court nominations and for all legislation.
The move could dramatically ease the bottleneck on stalled nominees including federal judges, but lawmakers worry it could almost certainly curtail the influence of the party in the Senate minority and lead to an escalation of partisanship.
They also warned it would dramatically boost the partisan nature of presidential picks -- regardless of which party holds the White House.
"I think you'll see harder-edged partisan choices, and the filter that exists today to kind of weed those folks out is going to be less," said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham.
The Senate vote was 52-48, with three Democrats voting against the rules change. A motion to overturn the change failed.
Republican were livid about the sudden moves by Reid, who earlier this year made similar threats to use the nuclear option, but it was averted with a last-minute compromise.
"This is a power grab," argued Senator Lamar Alexander. "It's another partisan political maneuver to permit the Democratic majority to do whatever it wants to do.
"In this case it's to advance the president's regulatory agenda, and the only cure for it that I know is an election," he said.
Republicans contend that Reid used complex procedural tactics to break Senate rules that require that any changes to those rules be made by a super-majority of two-thirds of senators.