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Heitkamp, Hoeven split on Senate rules change

WASHINGTON — North Dakota’s U.S. senators are split on changes to Senate procedures that will now allow for the swift confirmation of some controversial presidential appointments.

Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said she wished Democrats didn’t have to alter filibuster traditions in the Senate, but she said doing so was necessary to stop the chamber from becoming gridlocked.

Republican Sen. John Hoeven said Democrats made a shortsighted decision that could hurt the chances of big bipartisan legislation, some of it key to North Dakota’s interests.

Senate Democrats moved Thursday to alter Senate practices that had allowed Republicans to block many Democratic nominees on procedural grounds. After squabbling with Republicans for months over certain presidential appointments, Democrats used a 52-48 vote, led by Senate Majority Hary Reid, that will allow most presidential nominees to move forward on a simple majority votes, not the 60 votes previously needed to invoke cloture.

The changes do not affect legislation or Supreme Court nominees, both of which will still require 60 votes to proceed.

Democrats used a parliamentary maneuver to make the change, by establishing a new precedent under the existing Senate rules, rather than formally changing the rules. The move upended a century of tradition.

Hoeven joined his Republican colleagues in decrying the move, saying it was nakedly political and designed to distract attention from problems with rollout of President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.

He noted that legislation, like the change to Senate practices enacted Thursday, was done with only Democratic votes.

“It’s got to be to change the dialogue from Obamacare,” Hoeven said.

Hoeven said he feared the move would poison any spirit of bipartisanship just as several key bills — including the farm bill and a water infrastructure bill — are locked in bipartisan negotiations between the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Republican-led House. Both bills contain key provisions for North Dakota, he said.

“I think it definitely will make it harder,” Hoeven said. “No question.”

For Heitkamp, the changes in the Senate were nothing to celebrate, but she said Democrats needed to act to make sure the Senate was fulfilling its duties.

“I’m really saddened by what happened today,” Heitkamp said. “I feel like I’ve worked very hard over the last eight, nine months here to build collegiality. ... But I also told people during the campaign (in 2012) that I would change the filibuster if it moved us forward and out of gridlock.

“To me this was something, which I have said all along, that I think is needed to get back to some kind of regular order,” she added.

Heitkamp said she was not worried that negotiations on the farm bill and the water bill would be harmed by the move.

The Senate has no more votes before Thanksgiving and is not scheduled to return until the week of Dec. 9.