Democratic U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken voted with their party today on the so-called nuclear option to restrict the use of the filibuster, a decades-old Senate procedure that allows the party in the minority to block final key votes.
By a 52-48 vote, Senate Democrats invoked the so-called "nuclear option" -- a phrase that has been popular because it's dramatic. But the decision was less about mushroom clouds than about math. Democrats hold a 55 seat majority in the Senate.
Gone is the need to obtain the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster - difficult to accomplish during polarized times.
Because of the change, the Senate will need a simple majority of 51 votes to secure a vote on presidential nominees and federal judges. The Senate made an exception for Supreme Court Justices.
In recent years, the need to overcome Republican objections has taken the Senate's pace from sloth-like to snail-like, even for previously non-controversial nominees.
"We have seen filibuster after filibuster on things like judges where it's really been abused," Franken said.
Because judges have lifetime tenure and because both parties increasingly look to the courts to preserve their legislative accomplishments and halt their opponents' initiatives, as members of the Senate Judiciary Committee Franken and Klobuchar have been in the thick of the fight.
Senate deliberations on President Barack Obama's nominations of three judges to the D.C. Circuit -- often called the second most powerful court in the land after the Supreme Court -- have been particularly contentious.
The eight members on the 11-member D.C. Circuit are evenly split between those Democratic and Republican nominees, and Republicans holding firm against approving additional Democrats because the court is seen as a springboard to the nation's highest court. But Democrats have cried foul.
"No one on the Republican side complained about their qualifications," Franken said. "So this is a very new thing and they're just saying they don't want to fill the spaces that are there for these judges."
Franken and Klobuchar are among the 55 members of the Senate who have entered the chamber since 2007. The newest members only know a gridlocked institution under Democratic control, not the institution of 30 and 40 years ago when filibusters were extremely rare, Washington University political scientist Steven Smith said.
"The Senate's changed in a fundamental way, and most of today's Senators don't even realize how different it is," Smith said.
The two Minnesota senators also are among the group of junior senators who have called for change.
Franken pushed a plan to put the burden of filibustering on the minority by requiring them to get 41 votes to oppose an up or down vote rather than the majority gathering 60 votes.
Old guard Democrats held out, arguing that once their party is in the minority, the ability to demand 60 votes will be one the few cards they'll still hold.
But Klobuchar said even the more senior Democrats were swayed after Republicans broke an agreement this summer to limit the use of filibusters on presidential nominees.
"Sadly, since the agreement was reached this summer, we've just seen an increasing number of filibusters," she said.
Both senators acknowledged that the rule change would give presidents from both parties a much freer hand with nominations going forward.
"This is simply about allowing a president, a Democratic president but I'd allow it for a Republican president... to get their team in," Klobuchar said.
The filibuster hasn't gone away for legislation and Franken said he hopes it stays that way.
Klobuchar doesn't expect today's votes to affect her relationships across the aisle.
"I know for me personally, nothing's changed," she said. "I still continue to work well with Republicans and am working on a number of bills all afternoon together."
But the difficult vote may make it difficult for senators from the two parties to start working together, at least for a while. A few hours after Democrats changed the Senate rules, Republicans united to block consideration of a normally bipartisan defense authorization bill to protest the rules change.