Last month, for the first time in its history, the Senate changed its procedure on filibusters. Though the majority party has threatened to use the nuclear option for years, Senate Democrats finally invoked it this time. This change to parliamentary procedure means that federal judicial nominees and executive appointments need only a simple majority to reach a confirmation vote, rather than the 60-vote supermajority required before. This does not apply to legislation or to Supreme Court nominees.
It seemed unlikely this would happen because many long-serving senators, such as Majority Leader Harry Reid, have done their best to avoid changing tradition. However, as the Washington Post notes, the Senate demographics have changed over the past few years; there are many senators who have only known being the majority or the minority. That is why young Democrats have pushed for the nuclear option as a way to get things done now and worry about the future later. There is unlikely to be public backlash as well because, on the surface, this will not affect the general public.
In the short term, this is a win for progressives who have seen like-minded appointments, such as that of Mel Watt to be the head of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, get blocked by Senate Republicans just because Obama appointed them. Right after the procedure was changed, Reid pushed through the nomination of Patricia Millett to the D.C. Circuit Court, who was easily confirmed by a simple majority. It is significant if the Circuit Court judges are confirmed because they represent another way to combat congressional gridlock. The D.C. Circuit Court is responsible for reviewing executive action, so it would be helpful for Obama to have sympathetic judges were he to pursue anything.
However, Republicans still have ways to derail the confirmation process. According to the Brookings Institution, by using the blue-slip rule, which allows for the approval of state judicial appointments by the senators of that state, senators can effectively veto nominees by not turning in the slip. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy has enforced the rule by not even allowing the nominee a hearing if either home-state senator does not return the slip. Republicans can also not show up to committee meetings and thereby prevent a quorum, the minimum number of senators who must be present to move forward, if they are unhappy with a nominee.
Though some are prematurely predicting that the 2014 elections will not go well for the Democrats, it seems like they are willing to face the consequences of a future Republican majority just to get meaningful work done now. However, since obstruction is still possible, it remains to be seen if this was just a change in tradition and nothing more.