The Senate voted 51-48 to back Reid and overturn the Senate precedent. Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.) was the only Democrat to vote against his leader.
The surprise move stunned Republicans, who did not expect Reid to bring heavy artillery to what had been a humdrum knife fight over amendments to China currency legislation.
Reid appealed a ruling from the chair that Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) does not need unanimous
consent to force a vote on a motion to suspend the rules to consider amendments after cloture has already been approved.
The chair, which was occupied by Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), ruled under the advice of the Senate parliamentarian that Republicans had the right to force a vote on a motion to suspend the rules and proceed to President Obama’s controversial jobs bill.
Republicans planned to use this right of the minority to embarrass Obama by showing that many Democrats do not support his jobs package as originally drafted. But Reid moved to kill their plan by appealing the chair’s ruling, triggering a vote.
The maneuver is arcane but momentous. If a simple majority of the Senate votes with Reid and strikes down the ruling, the chamber’s precedent will be changed through the unilateral
action of one party.
Republicans had considered using this maneuver, dubbed the “nuclear option,” in 2005 to change Senate rules to prohibit the filibuster of judicial nominees. Democrats decried the plan and the crisis was resolved by a bipartisan agreement forged by 14 rank-and-file senators known as the Gang of 14.
Senate Republicans were furious at Reid’s actions.
“Just wait until they get into the minority!” one GOP staffer growled.
— This story was updated at 7:23 p.m.