Democrats in the U.S. Senate voted yesterday to partially eliminate the filibuster. That’s good news for President Obama, who has been unable to fill a large number of vacancies to federal courts and executive agencies because of Republican objections. But, significantly, it could also be good news for the environment.
The filibuster rule allows a minority of senators to prevent the full body from taking final votes. “Since 2009, when Obama took office, Senate Republicans have used constant filibuster threats to force Democrats to win 60 votes to do almost anything,” Mother Jones notes.
Democrats did not completely eliminate the rule yesterday—legislation and Supreme Court justices can still be blocked—but by a 52-48 party-line vote, they ended the ability of senators to filibuster other judicial appointments and federal nominees. (Filibuster reform is frequently called “the nuclear option” because it’s such a major shakeup to Senate rules.)
The biggest immediate impact of the Senate’s action will be on the D.C. Circuit Court, where three of the President’s appointments can now be approved by the Democratic majority. The court currently has eight full-time judges (out of an eleven total possible seats); half were appointed by Democratic presidents, the other half by Republicans. But there are also six part-time “senior” judges who continue to hear some cases when the court docket is overloaded, and five of those were appointed by Republicans, giving the court a conservative bent overall.
Three new Obama appointees, bringing the full-time contingent to eleven, will make it more likely that any given three-judge panel (which is how the court usually hears cases) will be more open to progressive legal arguments.
The D.C. court is a huge deal, considered second in power only to the U.S. Supreme Court, because it rules on decisions made by federal agencies. Those decisions include important environmental rules, such as Clean Air Act limits on air pollution from power plants. And with President Obama unable to pass any significant legislation in the face of a recalcitrant GOP, executive actions are his main avenue to implement policy at this point. As the Washington Post’s Wonkblog notes:
The court is likely to oversee crucial cases on environmental and financial regulation in the years ahead. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is in the process of issuing rules to regulate carbon emissions from new and existing coal- and gas-fired power plants. This is a crucial plank in President Obama's climate-change agenda. And any challenges to those rules could end up in the D.C. Circuit court.
So by breaking the deadlock, Democrats have made it more likely that President Obama’s climate change-fighting initiatives—the ones he has already enacted and the ones still to come—will stick around for the long haul.
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