November 21st, 2013
09:17 AM ET
12 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. Just_One

    I don;t want to hear the libbies kvetch when the shoe is on the other foot

    November 21, 2013 11:34 am at 11:34 am |
  2. Ruby

    Democrats and liberals ALWAYS have two sets of rules, one set for themselves and one set for everyone else. Hypocrites as usual.

    They are the 21st Century Fascists

    November 21, 2013 11:35 am at 11:35 am |
  3. Bill

    And for you liberals rejoicing in this, remember: Republicans still control the House, and your days in the Senate majority are numbered.

    November 21, 2013 11:35 am at 11:35 am |
  4. oreo

    After the complete disaster of ZeroCare, you would think the neoLiberals would be at least, a little contrite, oh well!

    November 21, 2013 11:35 am at 11:35 am |
  5. Paul Cooper

    Ah yes, because the nation is put at enormous risk by an underworked court not having more judges than it needs to handle its caseload.

    I don't know what these three people have on Reid, but this pretty much spells out that Reid is not planning on running for re-election. Not unless he thinks the Republicans will change the rules back for his benefit when he becomes minority leader.

    November 21, 2013 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  6. JohnRJohnson

    It is about time. LBJ faced ONE filibuster in 6 years. Obama has faced more than 350 in 5 years. And that doesn't even count the threats to filibuster, which have become just as effective at blocking debate on a bill. This government has to start working. Congress has to start passing laws, then working together to make necessary improvements to those laws. The Republicans and Tea Partyers in Congress have spent the last 5 years trying to nullify the results of the last two presidential elections by obstructing EVERYTHING this president has supported or proposed. In the process, the approval rating of Congress has dropped below 10%, which is the lowest rating of any governing body since these ratings were first created. The time to use the "nuclear option" is long overdue. Go ahead, Harry. Push the button.

    November 21, 2013 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  7. Ian

    About time we get rid of this useless obstruction.

    November 21, 2013 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  8. OrmondGeorge

    Republicans are warning "what goes around comes around."
    I'm not certain, but I think that will end up being a Democratic rallying cry, a warning to EVERYONE on both sides of the aisle who is SICK TO DEATH of the obstructionism, the contention, the DECISION BY REPUBLICANS to keep Congress from doing the people's business.

    November 21, 2013 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  9. Terry

    Old pinch face should be frustrated by the lying steaming pile in the white house.

    November 21, 2013 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  10. W

    the need to cover Holder outweighs any consideration of decenc but it will come back to haunt them

    November 21, 2013 11:37 am at 11:37 am |
  11. ztarbod

    Both republicans and democrats use filibuster when they are in the minority. Reid is showing his spoiled child mentality.

    November 21, 2013 11:37 am at 11:37 am |
  12. Anthony

    Republicans after 2010 swore that they would take an interest in American by promising a jobs bill. We got no Jobs bill and they made many additoinal promises afterwards which done nothing to enhance the country forward. Slowly the country has moved forward by no help from their party.

    Therefore to me vote for a majority of Democratic rule and lets get things back on track. For the Red states still pushing nostalgia between you dependency on government for Social Security, Welfare and other social safety nets because you have not advanced your state forward into reality shut the hell up! If it was not for the advancement of the Blue states you folks would still be selling "Boiled" peanuts and RC soda on the side of the damn road!

    November 21, 2013 11:37 am at 11:37 am |
  13. Jerry

    Sen. Reid moves toward invoking 'nuclear option'

    Controversial rules change may add to partisan divide...

    Isn't that exactly what Dirty Harry and his Master (Mr. Obama) want?!

    Just asking... And, then they want the Republican's support?!

    Tripple wow... Deflect, deflect, deflect!!!

    November 21, 2013 11:37 am at 11:37 am |
  14. Andrew

    In other words, Harry Reid is indicating he would rather maintain complete control of the Senate than have a system of checks & balances. Neither side appreciates a filibuster, but its part of the process. Taking away power for the minority (regardless if it is Republican or Democrat) to have a voice is akin to stripping a race of its civil rights.

    November 21, 2013 11:37 am at 11:37 am |
  15. Ben Franklin

    Maybe we were wrong and we should not have allowed EVERYONE to have a say

    November 21, 2013 11:38 am at 11:38 am |
  16. Strangways

    George W got most of his nominees through, but the Republicans have blocked EVERY Obama nominee for political reasons – nothing about qualifications. This toxic cesspool MUST be cleaned and the only way to do it is VOTE THE REPUBLICANS OUT IN 2014. PLEASE!

    November 21, 2013 11:38 am at 11:38 am |
  17. surfsock1

    Democrats are imploding!!!

    November 21, 2013 11:38 am at 11:38 am |
  18. ERIC

    he might as well use the nuclear option. maybe something will get done in congress. hell, the repubs have been doing unprecedented stuff for a while now.

    November 21, 2013 11:39 am at 11:39 am |
  19. Bob

    What Reid wants is to install a liberal extremist in the Supreme Court, as there WILL be a death or retirement in the next three years on the court.

    November 21, 2013 11:39 am at 11:39 am |
  20. Anonymous

    Didn't the Democrats learn from Obamacare, that when it comes to legislation, going it alone doesn't work.

    November 21, 2013 11:39 am at 11:39 am |
  21. Anonymous

    Just do it already, D-dawgs. How long have we heard "they're considering the nuclear option."

    November 21, 2013 11:39 am at 11:39 am |
  22. al

    Try it Reid. The people will respond with Impeachment!!!!!!!

    November 21, 2013 11:39 am at 11:39 am |
  23. Rick

    Sure, the Libs did such a great job with Obamacare, just let them do whatever they want!!!!

    November 21, 2013 11:39 am at 11:39 am |
  24. tim

    freaking cunt. these republicans throw around the word nuclear like it's some video game. He thinks he is so big and bad.

    November 21, 2013 11:39 am at 11:39 am |
  25. chill485

    At the very least, an executive branch nominee should get an up or down vote; no matter who is President. Blockign nominees doesn't change policy, it only cripples the government. I have mixed feelings on the judicial appointments since they are lifetime appointments at all levels, not just the Supreme Court. However, I despise the practice of delaying nominees that are qualified by all accounts, just to get your way on unrelated matters. I believe the Legislative Branch is able to reduce the number of jusdges in a istrict Court, so if they don't think there is enough work, they should do that rather than keep slots open.

    November 21, 2013 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
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