November 21st, 2013
09:17 AM ET
11 months ago

Obama supports Senate's nuclear option to end some filibusters

Update 5:53 p.m. ET

Washington (CNN) - Senate Democrats dropped the filibuster bomb Thursday, and now the question is what kind of fallout will result from the so-called nuclear option.

By a 52-48 vote, the Senate ended the ability of minority Republicans to continue using filibusters to block some of President Barack Obama's judicial and executive nominations, despite the vehement objections of Republicans.

Majority Democrats then quickly acted on the change by ending a filibuster against one of Obama's nominees for a federal appeals court.

Obama later cited what he called "an unprecedented pattern of obstruction in Congress" during his presidency for the move led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

"A deliberate and determined effort to obstruct everything, no matter what the merits, just to refight the results of an election is not normal," Obama said of the change. "And for the sake of future generations, it cannot become normal."

The man who coined the term 'nuclear option' regrets ever pursuing it

Republicans warned the controversial move would worsen the already bitter partisan divide in Washington, complaining it took away a time-honored right for any member of the Senate minority party to filibuster.

"This changes everything, this changes everything," veteran GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona told reporters. He blamed newer Democratic senators who never served as the minority party for pushing the issue, adding: "They succeeded and they will pay a very, very heavy price for it."

Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called Thursday's maneuvering a diversion from the problem-plagued Obamacare issue that has been giving the White House and Democrats political headaches.

"You'll regret this and you may regret it a lot sooner than you think," McConnell warned, adding that "the Democratic playbook of broken promises, double standards and raw power - the same playbook that got us Obamacare - has to end. It may take the American people to end it, but it has to end."

CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger said Democrats seem to believe that things couldn't get much worse, with judicial vacancies increasing and Republicans increasing their use of filibusters after an agreement earlier this year that cleared some presidential appointees.

Opinion: 'Nuclear option' makes GOP do its job

"I think there is probably a little bit of 'calling your bluff' going on here; that Harry Reid basically threw up his hands and said, enough of this, it's time to do it," Borger said. Now, she added, the question was whether angry Republicans would further harden their positions in the already bitter political climate which she said "will get worse."

Thursday's change affected presidential executive nominations such as ambassadors and agency heads, along with judicial nominations except for Supreme Court appointees.

It did not affect the ability of Republicans to filibuster legislation.

Under the old rules, it took 60 votes to break a filibuster of presidential nominees. The change means a simple Senate majority of 51 now suffices in the chamber Democrats currently control with a 55-45 majority.

The nuclear option deployed by Reid allowed a procedural vote that required a simple majority to change the threshold for approving presidential and judicial nominees, instead of a super majority typically required.

Opinion: What's at stake in power struggle over judges

"It's time to get the Senate working again," the Nevada Democrat said on the Senate floor. "Not for the good of the current Democratic majority or some future Republican majority, but for the good of the United States of America. It's time to change. It's time to change the Senate before this institution becomes obsolete."

Reid followed through on threats dating back years after Republicans blocked three judicial nominees to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, known as the highest court in the land after the Supreme Court.

Both parties have been guilty of political hijinks involving filibusters.

In 2005, Republicans who then held the majority threatened the nuclear option to prevent Democratic filibusters of President George W. Bush's judicial nominees. The confrontation was averted thanks to an agreement by a bipartisan group of 14 senators.

Obama, then a senator, opposed the nuclear option at that time.

"I urge my Republican colleagues not to go through with changing these rules," he said on the Senate floor in 2005. "In the long run it is not a good result for either party. One day Democrats will be in the majority again and this rule change will be no fairer to a Republican minority than it is to a Democratic minority."

Explainer: What's the nuclear option?

Asked about Obama's past stance compared to his support Thursday for Reid's move, White House spokesman Josh Earnest cited increased obstruction of Obama nominees for the need to get the Senate working again.

"The circumstances have unfortunately changed for the worse since 2005," Earnest said, noting that there were 50 judicial vacancies when Obama took office compared to 93 today and that many of the President's nominees have bipartisan support but can't get an up-or-down Senate vote.

Furious Republicans accused Reid of reneging on a pledge against using the nuclear option.

"It is another partisan political maneuver to permit the Democratic majority to do whatever it wants to do, and in this case it is to advance the President's regulatory agenda and the only cure for it that I know is an election," said veteran GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.

Until now, Reid hadn't necessarily had support from enough of his own Democratic caucus to pass a rules change. Some Democratic senators were reluctant to change the rules because of reverence for the institution and, more importantly, because they know Democrats will not always be in the majority.

Veterans such as Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who had been opposed to the nuclear option to change the Senate rules, recently decided to back Reid's move. Feinstein and others, like fellow Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, said things were so broken in Washington that the nuclear option was the only way to fix it.

Three Democrats voted with Republicans on Thursday in opposing the nuclear option - Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.

However, Republicans argued Democrats were just trying to manufacture a crisis in order to create a distraction from the Obamacare rollout debacle.

"Sounds to me like Harry Reid is trying to change the subject and if I were taking all the incoming fire that he is taking over Obamacare I'd try to change the subject too," House Speaker John Boehner said Thursday.

CNN's Ashley Killough, Lisa Desjardins, Alan Silverleib and Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report.


Filed under: Congress • Harry Reid • Senate
soundoff (2,690 Responses)
  1. Fred

    while i see the flip side of this " nuclear option". i think it was nessessary to get the senate functioning again.

    As for republicans, Please wisen up, before we have to make a second party to compete with democrats in elections.

    November 22, 2013 04:38 pm at 4:38 pm |
  2. Silver Lining

    This could be a silver lining for the GOP. The Dems tend to blame everything bad on the Republicans. "The Republicans are blocking...." "The Republicans are obstructing....." How many times has Bush been blamed for everything, even today, five years+ after Obama took office? With this rule passed, the Dems are no longer able to blame the Republicans for blocking everything. Now the nation will see who is at fault for passing bad bills, obstructing progress, having low unemployment numbers, etc. I just hope people see and elections are held (even with dead people voting for the Dems) before too much destruction is done.

    November 22, 2013 05:18 pm at 5:18 pm |
  3. dave

    Reid, Pelosi, Feinstein, Biden, Obama, Hillary and about a dozen other democrats are ON RECORD saying the nuclear option was a terrible idea and threatened our system when it was just mentioned back in 2005. I wonder what changed in their minds? The funniest part is that KARMA awaits them come Nov 2014 (I know it is actually Jan 2015 before the Party in Power actually shifts, but it will shift this next election. Between the ACA fiasco, and this attempt of a grand power grab, the dems has set themselves up for replacement in the 2014 elections) .

    November 22, 2013 05:33 pm at 5:33 pm |
  4. HJC

    Democrats and their demagoguery . Apparently tyranny is alive and well in America!

    November 22, 2013 05:33 pm at 5:33 pm |
  5. EDW

    Framing it as "obstructionism" is doublespeak – it's "disagreement" and it is to be expected.

    November 22, 2013 05:46 pm at 5:46 pm |
  6. Michele

    So the Fright Whingers are upset? Too frickin' bad. They have bullied the country for their own personal benefit since the day Obama was voted into office. They have done nothing but throw up roadblocks and filibusters and try to knock down every appointee. They have even refused to fill empty seats on the DC circuit rather than put in an Obama appointee. (And this after they rammed down our collective throats the worst SC judges and the absolute worst chief justice in history). Grow the heck up or go the heck home. Issa is nothing more than a self-serving crook.......like most of the TP. Just go away.

    November 22, 2013 06:00 pm at 6:00 pm |
  7. mike

    Those rules were in for a reason to protect the country and its citizens from being able to have one group to have so much power and part of checks and balances. Looks like King Obama's agenda is moving on nicely. Hopefully the Republicans take over the senate in the next election and put it back to where it should be.

    November 22, 2013 06:15 pm at 6:15 pm |
  8. Texas Bob

    Democrats voted to change the rules and they can vote to change them back again, which they'll likely do immediately prior to the 2014 elections.

    November 22, 2013 06:17 pm at 6:17 pm |
  9. TheTruth

    This will blow up in their faces. There are reasons that the Senate rules were what they were. And the Senate is charged with Advising on and Consenting to nominations. If qualified people were nominated, this wouldn't be such a problem. With unqualified people being nominated on the basis of ideology, the Senate is doing its job in blocking those nominations. Wonder how hard the Dems will cry when the pendulum swings back and they're on the receiving end?

    November 22, 2013 07:02 pm at 7:02 pm |
  10. tom

    Note to Dems: what goes around comes around, lucky for you the Republicans are at least more civilized so you will not get burned that bad when you lose control of the Senate next year because of the lies about Obamacare.

    November 22, 2013 07:09 pm at 7:09 pm |
  11. DemFromSC

    What all of you Fox viewers prefer to ignore is that the Republicans have made a mockery of the original purpose for the filibuster. It was never meant to simply be a way of life to prevent a President of the other party from being able to accomplish ANYTHING. Just look at the statistics on the numbers of filibusters that have happened since Obama became President. The Republicans gave the Democrats no other choice if they wanted to move this country forward.

    November 22, 2013 07:13 pm at 7:13 pm |
  12. Tom

    A very sad day in America.

    November 22, 2013 07:52 pm at 7:52 pm |
  13. NorCalMojo

    Seems short sighted.

    November 22, 2013 08:21 pm at 8:21 pm |
  14. Concerned American

    All Americans should be very concerned....as we are allowing our elected representatives...to destroy the checks and balances that protect the American experience and way of life.. Every Democrat that voted for the nuclear option is unfit to be serving in the Senate...as they have proven to not understand the American Democratic System of Government and the American experience. We may wish to study history and recall what Hitler did in Austria

    November 22, 2013 08:55 pm at 8:55 pm |
  15. cgs

    Can you imagine CNN's reaction if this had happened under the Bush administration? Why does most the media enable BO so much?

    November 22, 2013 11:51 pm at 11:51 pm |
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