Under the rules change, a simple majority of senators, or 51 votes, would end debate on executive branch nominees and nominees to federal district and appeals courts.
Before the change, a 60-vote majority was needed for the approval of presidential nominees.
However, the rules change will not apply to U.S. Supreme Court nominees or to legislation. Both are still subject to the 60-vote filibuster rule.
Fifty-two Democrats voted for the rules change. Three Democrats opposed the measure: Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Carl Levin of Michigan.
Typically, 67 votes are needed to change Senate rules; however, Democrats decided to employ the "nuclear option" and changed the rules with a simple majority vote.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the need for the rules change is "obvious."
"In the history of the Republic, there have been 168 filibusters of executive and judicial nominations. Half of them have occurred during the Obama Administration -- during the last four and a half years," he said on the Senate floor Thursday.
"These nominees deserve at least an up-or-down vote. But Republican filibusters deny them a fair vote and deny the President his team."
Reid said such a "gridlock" has consequences.
"It is not only bad for President Obama and bad for the United States Senate; it's bad for our country. It is bad for our national security and for our economic security," he told his fellow senators.
"That's why it's time to get the Senate working again -- not for the good of the current Democratic majority or some future Republican majority, but for the good of the country. It's time to change the Senate, before this institution becomes obsolete."
Obama, in a statement following the vote Thursday afternoon, said he supports the step.
"If you've got a majority of folks who believe in something, then it should be able to pass," he said.
Progressive groups also praised the rules change.
Marge Baker, executive vice president of the PFAW, called it "unquestionably good news."
"We are thrilled that President Obama's D.C. Circuit nominees and the other federal judicial nominees waiting for Senate votes will finally get the fair consideration that they deserve," she said.
"Senate Republicans have refused to do their jobs for far too long. It's time to get the Senate working again."
Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, agreed.
"Adoption of the Reid Rule mean that Congressman (Melvin) Watt and the three nominees for the D.C. Circuit will finally be judged on their merits, as they should have been in the first place," he said.
"We are confident that when yes-or-no votes are scheduled, all four will be confirmed."
Michael Waldman, president of The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law, said ending the "rampant filibuster abuse" is vital to the courts.
"The Senate's action today is a significant step to help overcome government dysfunction," he said. "The Senate's proper role is to advise and consent, not obstruct and deny."
Earlier this week, GOP senators blocked the nomination of Robert Leon Wilkins to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
They also blocked the nominations of Patricia Millett and Cornelia "Nina" Pillard, also to the D.C. Circuit.
From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.