WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats quickly enjoyed the first fruits of a milestone Senate vote making it harder for the Republican minority to block President Barack Obama's nominations: They swiftly ended a GOP filibuster against one of his top judicial selections and prepared to do the same for two others.
Over the longer term, they might regret what they did and how they did it, Republicans and others are warning.
When Democrats muscled the changes through Thursday over the opposition of every GOP senator, it helped heighten Congress' already high level of partisan animosity. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., used a process that let Democrats unilaterally weaken the filibuster by simple majority vote, rather than the two-thirds margin usually used for major changes in chamber rules, which would have required GOP support.
"If the majority can change the rules, then there are no rules," said veteran Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has resisted similar changes in the past. "It puts a chill on the entire U.S. Senate."
Such comments suggested a further erosion in the mutual trust the two parties would need to tackle sensitive, large-scale issues like still-massive budget deficits and a tax system overhaul. The tensions also won't help Congress' efforts early next year to avoid another government shutdown and prevent a federal default, twin disputes that the two parties struggled to resolve this fall.
And even though Thursday's change left intact the 60 Senate votes needed to filibuster, or delay, legislation, it raised an obvious question: Might a future Senate majority, hitting obstacles advancing a president's agenda, ram through changes weakening filibusters against bills too?
In control of both the White House and Congress someday, Senate Republicans might be tempted to force a filibuster change to cover legislation and use it, for example, to repeal Obama's health care law.
"I don't think this is a time to be talking about reprisals," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said after the vote. He said later, "The solution to this problem is at the ballot box. We look forward to having a great election in November 2014."
McConnell spoke after the Senate voted 52-48 to allow a simple majority vote to end filibusters, instead of the 60 votes required since 1975. The change affects nominees for top federal agency and judicial appointments, but not Supreme Court justices.
Republicans had warned repeatedly that should they win Senate control, they will happily use the diluted filibuster to win Senate approval for future nominees by GOP presidents that under past standards Democrats might have blocked.
"The silver lining is that there will come a day when the roles are reversed," said Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. He warned that when his party wins a Senate majority they likely will apply the 51-vote filibuster threshold to a Republican president's Supreme Court nominees.
"The tyranny of the majority. That's what it's going to be" at some point in the future, predicted Steve Bell, a former top Senate Republican aide who is now a senior director at the Bipartisan Policy Center, which advocates partisan cooperation.
Democrats said GOP delays had gone too far, blocking nominees not for their qualifications or ideology but for political reasons like preventing too many Democrats from serving on a court.
Republicans argued that Democrats have acted similarly to block appointments by GOP presidents and warned they would use Senate rules to their advantage whenever they win control of the chamber.
"We understand all the considerations," Reid said of the risks. "But let's be realistic. What could they do more to slow down the country? What could they do more than what they've already done to stop the Senate from legislating?"
"We'd much prefer the risk of up-or-down votes and majority rule than the risk of continued total obstruction," said New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the No. 3 Senate Democratic leader.
Immediately after the showdown roll call, senators voted to end GOP delays against attorney Patricia Millett, whom Obama wants to fill one of three vacancies at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The powerful court has jurisdiction over White House and federal agency actions.
Millett will be formally confirmed after the Senate returns from a two-week Thanksgiving recess.
December votes were also planned on District Judge Robert L. Wilkins and law professor Cornelia Pillard, two other Obama choices Republicans had blocked for the D.C. Circuit. That will give judges picked by Democratic presidents a 7-4 edge over those selected by Republicans for that court.
Labor and liberal groups hailed the filibuster curbs, expressing satisfaction that Democrats had finally stood up to the GOP.
"There was no choice," said Nan Aron, president of the liberal coalition Alliance for Justice. "The Republican minority had turned the existing rules into weapons of mass obstruction."
But Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, one of three Democrats who voted against diluting the filibuster, noted that past Democratic minorities have used the procedure to block GOP moves to limit abortion rights and repeal the estate tax.
He said he feared that a future Senate majority would weaken filibusters against legislation and "down the road, the hard-won protections and benefits for our people's health and welfare will be lost."
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The Texas Board of Education used a late-night meeting to preliminarily approve new science textbooks for classrooms across the state Thursday, but it blocked signing off on a major new biology text until alleged "errors" in lessons over the theory of evolution are checked by outside experts.
The vote just before midnight did not reject the biology book by Pearson, one of the country's largest publishers. But it delayed approval until three board members appoint a trio of outside experts to check concerns.
Textbook and classroom curriculum battles have long raged in Texas pitting creationists — those who see God's hand in the creation of the universe — against academics who worry about religious and political ideology trumping scientific fact. At issue this time are proposed high school biology books that could be used across the state at least through 2022.
State law approved two years ago means school districts can now choose their own books and don't have to adhere to a list recommended by the Board of Education — but most have continued to use approved books.
The issue is important nationally since Texas is so large that many books prepared for publication in the state also are marketed elsewhere around the country.
Publishers from around the country submitted proposed textbooks this summer, but committees of Texas volunteer reviewers — some nominated by socially conservative current and former Board of Education members — raised objections. One argued that creationism based on biblical texts should be taught in science classes, while others objected that climate change wasn't as settled a scientific matter as some of the proposed books said.
Pearson and many other major publishers weren't willing to make suggested major edits and changes, however.
That promoted some of the board's socially conservative members to call for delaying approval of the book because of concerns including how long it took Earth to cool and objection to lessons about natural selection because "selection operates as a selective but not a creative force."
Members outside the socially conservative bloc claimed their colleagues waited until the dead of night to try and impose ideological edits.
"To ask me — a business degree major from Texas Tech University — to distinguish whether the Earth cooled 4 billion years ago or 4.2 billion years ago for purposes of approving a textbook at 10:15 on a Thursday night is laughable," said Thomas Ratliff, a Republican from Mount Pleasant.
He added: "I believe this process is being hijacked, this book is being held hostage to make political changes."
SANFORD, Fla. (AP) — George Zimmerman is once again a free man after an arrest on criminal charges — but his freedom carries conditions.
The former neighborhood watch volunteer who was acquitted in the fatal shooting of unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin earlier this year was released from jail Tuesday pending arraignment on the latest charges against him: aggravated assault, battery and criminal mischief.
Zimmerman was released on the condition that he wear an electronic monitor, keep his distance from guns, and stay away from the girlfriend who accused him of trying to choke her and then a week later pointing a shotgun at her. His bond was set at $9,000.
Zimmerman's arrest is the latest of several brushes he has had with the law following his acquittal in Martin's death, a case that drew worldwide attention as it sparked nationwide debates about race and self-defense laws.
The choking accusation was disclosed for the first time by a prosecutor at Zimmerman's first appearance Tuesday before a judge. Zimmerman's girlfriend, Samantha Scheibe, feared for her life because Zimmerman mentioned suicide and said he "had nothing to lose," according to Assistant State Attorney Lymary Munoz.
After the hearing, Zimmerman's public defenders said he did not appear to be suicidal and expressed confidence he would be acquitted of any wrongdoing.
"He doesn't appear to be a danger to himself or a danger to anybody else," said public defender Daniel Megaro.
Zimmerman, 30, wore gray jail garments and handcuffs during the hearing and spoke only when answering yes or no to the judge.
Judge Frederic Schott ordered him to stay away from Scheibe's house, wear a monitoring device and refrain from contact with her. He was forbidden from possessing guns or ammunition or traveling outside Florida.
Zimmerman has been charged with aggravated assault, a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison. He also has been charged with battery and criminal mischief, both misdemeanors. An arraignment was set for Jan. 7.
Judge Schott said Zimmerman's previous brushes with the law were not a factor in the conditions he imposed, but he did cite the new allegation of choking as a reason for the bond amount.
Earlier this year, Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges in the February 2012 fatal shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin. The Justice Department has been investigating whether to file civil rights charges against Zimmerman related to that case. A department spokesman said Tuesday that it would announce its decision soon.
Zimmerman revealed in an affidavit for hiring public defenders that he has at least $2 million in debts and no income. He said he had less than $150 in cash on hand.
Public defender Jeff Dowdy said Zimmerman's family has been supporting him financially.
"I would think it would be difficult for George Zimmerman to get a job in central Florida," he said.
Zimmerman has previously used a website to raise money for his legal and living expenses, including $95,000 spent on bail in the Trayvon Martin case. The site also says tens of thousands of dollars were spent on living expenses and security.
In this latest scuffle, both Zimmerman and his girlfriend called 911 Monday and provided dueling descriptions to dispatchers about the argument at the home she rented where Zimmerman was also staying.
Scheibe accused him in the emergency call of pointing a gun at her, smashing a coffee table and then pushing her outside. Zimmerman also called dispatchers, denied pointing a gun at her and blamed her for the broken table.
The girlfriend told deputies the ordeal started with a verbal argument and that she asked Zimmerman to leave the house. Her account in the arrest report says he began packing his belongings, including a shotgun and an assault rifle. She says she began putting his things in the living room and outside the house, and he became upset.
At that point, the report said, he took the shotgun out of its case.
Zimmerman told his girlfriend to leave and smashed a pair of her sunglasses as she walked toward the front door, the report said. Scheibe told deputies he pushed her out of the house when she got close to the door.
In his call to 911, Zimmerman said he never pulled a gun on his girlfriend and that it was she who smashed a table. He also told the dispatcher that Scheibe was pregnant with their child and that she had decided she would raise the child on her own. When Zimmerman started to leave, "she got mad," he said.
Seminole County Chief Deputy Dennis Lemma said at a news conference that Scheibe was not pregnant. He also said Zimmerman was compliant and unarmed when deputies came to the house.
On Tuesday, Dowdy said he could not confirm whether the girlfriend was pregnant.
The arrest Monday was the latest legal problem for Zimmerman since he was acquitted last summer of criminal charges in the fatal shooting of Martin. Zimmerman has said he shot the 17-year-old to defend himself during a fight in February 2012 inside a gated community in Sanford, just outside Orlando.
Relatives of Martin accused Zimmerman of racially profiling the teen and instigating a fight. Zimmerman identifies himself as Hispanic.
In September, just two months after his acquittal, Zimmerman was accused by his estranged wife of smashing an iPad during an argument at the home they had shared. Shellie Zimmerman initially told a dispatcher her husband had a gun, though she later said he was not armed.
No charges were ever filed because of a lack of evidence. The dispute occurred days after Shellie Zimmerman filed divorce papers. George Zimmerman was served the papers while in custody on the latest charges, said Shellie Zimmerman's lawyer, Kelly Sims.
In 2005, he had to take anger-management courses after he was accused of attacking an undercover officer who was trying to arrest Zimmerman's friend.
Later that year, Zimmerman's former fiancee filed for a restraining order against him, alleging domestic violence. Zimmerman responded by requesting a restraining order against her. Both requests were granted, and no criminal charges were filed.
Since his acquittal, Zimmerman has also been pulled over three times for traffic stops.