According to statistics kept by the White House, the pending nominations include 178 executive nominees and 53 judicial nominees. Reid pulled the "nuclear" trigger out of frustration that three appointees to the D.C. Circuit Court were being blocked: Patricia Millett, Nina Pillard, and Robert Wilkins. Immediately after changing the rules, Reid successfully advanced Millett's nomination to a floor vote—but she still hasn't been confirmed, because nothing is that easy in the Senate. In December, Democrats hope to move those three through to confirmation, along with proposed Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, and Federal Housing Finance Agency head Mel Watt. (Watt has been waiting more than 200 days to be confirmed, the second longest of any executive nominee currently on the floor.)
But the fact that those six nominees could take a month to clear the Senate, even without a 60-vote threshold, is a good indication of the time it could take to clear the rest of the backlog. "Democrats sold this [change] as 'We need to speed things up to make the Senate work,' but nothing they did speeds anything up or makes anything faster," Don Stewart, the deputy chief of staff to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, told me. "The notion that this will make the Senate run better or faster is a complete and utter falsehood."
McConnell, of course, bitterly opposed the rule change. But Democrats and filibuster-reform advocates don't totally disagree with Stewart. The fact that they don't have the votes to block a nominee at the end of the process might give Republicans less incentive to erect time-consuming obstacles along the way, they say. But it doesn't get rid of the mechanisms for doing so.
"The question is, are nominations going to move any more quickly now that [the majority doesn't] have to worry about getting a 60-vote supermajority at the end of the game?" says Sarah Binder, a Senate expert at George Washington University and the Brookings Institution. The answer, she said, remains to be seen. "There are still some elements built into committee practices that give power to individual members of the minority."
Most people, let's face it, are not that interested in Senate procedure, myself included. But the filibuster has gained popular traction as an issue because it symbolizes, to Democrats, the way Republicans who object to Obama on purely partisan grounds have tried to prevent him from getting his way. Republicans dispute the idea that Obama has faced more than the usual level of obstruction, and the facts—including what constitutes a filibuster and how to measure obstruction—are confusing and open to interpretation and spin.
But whether Obama will, in fact, get to put his "team" in place is an important question. As Jonathan Chait has noted, the president has largely given up on getting legislation through Congress; his legacy now rests on what his executive agencies will be able accomplish, from labor-law implementation to environmental regulation, and what precedents his judicial nominees will set over the course of their lifetime appointments. If you're interested in this question, it's worth understanding how it all works—and doesn't work—and why it will still be a tough and lengthy process for Obama to get all his appointees through.