November 21st, 2013
09:17 AM ET
9 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. vaross64

    Use of the "Nuclear option" is a blatant power grab.. an attempt to gain absolute power. It is un-american and destroys democracy, giving the majority the ability to deprive the minority of any voice.

    But do not just take my word for it.. ask Harry Reid and Barack Obama.. after all they were the ones who said it, not I.

    November 21, 2013 09:02 pm at 9:02 pm |
  2. rascal69

    This WILL and SHOULD come back to bite the Democrats squarely in the gluteus maximus. Not hard to hit that spot since it makes up 98% of their body mass.

    November 21, 2013 09:04 pm at 9:04 pm |
  3. bill

    It took 52 votes to change a 60 votes rule ? Should a simple rule of just 52 votes on a 200 year old rule like it was done today. 60 votes for a 60 votes rule .... This is wrong and it's all about the power all about the power nothing more nothing less OMG !!!

    November 21, 2013 09:05 pm at 9:05 pm |
  4. james

    finally getting rid of this ridiculous filibustering. the party of no is ruining this country.

    November 21, 2013 09:06 pm at 9:06 pm |
  5. vaross64

    Use of the "Nuclear Option" is Un-American, and destroys democracy. It is a blatant power grab, seeking absolute power. It violates principles held since the founding of the country. It gives the majority the ability to abuse the minority and eliminate any minority voice in government. But don't just take my word for it.. ask Harry Reid and Barack Obama.. after all they were the ones who said so.

    Hypocrisy thy name is DEMOCRAT.

    November 21, 2013 09:06 pm at 9:06 pm |
  6. bspurloc

    wah wah we cant stop appointments for absolutely no reason anymore...
    wah wah benghazi

    November 21, 2013 09:08 pm at 9:08 pm |
  7. natfka

    These laws that are being changed are there solely to protect this country from totalitarianism. This is a hard path for us to go down, and no matter what party you belong to or think you belong to, this is wrong.

    November 21, 2013 09:09 pm at 9:09 pm |
  8. Mybay

    In 2005 the nuclear option was flirted with by Republicans who at that time owned the majority. Senators Obama and Biden are on recorded speaking out against the nuclear option because it does diminish the standing of the minority. I was against the nuclear option then and I feel it is unwise now. The founding fathers – in their wisdom – designed the Senate so that by rule it was forced to be a wiser more contemplative body where leaders were forced to reason and compromise. Simple majority votes will compromise the standing of the minority and serve to destabilize the underpinnings of our democracy.

    November 21, 2013 09:10 pm at 9:10 pm |
  9. Randy

    Once again, the President thought it was a bad idea when his party would be on the other end of bad idea. Strange how things change when it is his party that is taking excessive power and ignoring established rules and procedures. With this check to executive power stripped, Obama is free to nominate an avalanche of liberal nominees.

    November 21, 2013 09:10 pm at 9:10 pm |
  10. natfka

    No matter what party you belong to, these rules are meant to protect us from the totalitarianism of someone in power. No matter who you are, left, right, or somewhere else, this is wrong.

    Is this what I voted for?

    November 21, 2013 09:11 pm at 9:11 pm |
  11. Terry Gonzales

    If a nominee can't get enough votes, the president should coose one that will. That was the genius of this rule. To remove it is either too simpleminded or a deliberate move toward one party government which is extremely dangerous too us all.

    November 21, 2013 09:13 pm at 9:13 pm |
  12. JWebb

    It's about time. The tactics of obstructionism by a Republican Party that has demonstrated time and time again it does not intend to work with the President and his party need to be overcome so some business can get done, even if it means changing a beloved tool of delay in the Senate and even if the Democrats have to pay a price when the Republicans again control the Senate. The ability to filibuster didn't come down from Mount Sinai on stone tablets. It makes no sesne that it seems to always take 60 votes to do anything in the Senate. If it were up to me, I'd eliminate the filibuster altogether. because the Republicans' continuous use of it has rendered the Senate nothing more than a debating society. It's long past time for the Senate to get back to work for the American people.

    November 21, 2013 09:14 pm at 9:14 pm |
  13. Occent

    Just makes it easier to repeal obamacare.

    November 21, 2013 09:15 pm at 9:15 pm |
  14. paul reynolds

    About Time! Finally some Justice for All!!!

    November 21, 2013 09:18 pm at 9:18 pm |
  15. elucidated1

    Have of all filibusters in the history of America happened in the last four years by the GOP. . who openly said "we are going to stop Obama at every turn." And they have. Over 80 filibusters in four years? Wow.

    November 21, 2013 09:19 pm at 9:19 pm |
  16. Rembrant

    POW! Smacked them Repubs upside the head. It was high time, should have happened years ago.

    November 21, 2013 09:20 pm at 9:20 pm |
  17. wrm

    I thought Obama was opposed to this.

    November 21, 2013 09:23 pm at 9:23 pm |
  18. papanez

    I love the comment that this "would worsen the already bitter partisan divide in Washington," The GOP has absolutely zero interest in improving the partisan divide. They are only interested in obstructing every bit of legislation even if they put it forward! The time has come to put an end to the abuse of minority using the filibuster for everything. The once proud GOP has turned in a party of obstructionists, dividers, and hell-bent on refusing to work on anything to move this country forward all because of this complete hatred of Barack Obama. And why do they hate him so much? Ask the racist members of the tea party.

    November 21, 2013 09:23 pm at 9:23 pm |
  19. Hi41

    I am waiting for the day that the current administration (1) stops blaming everyone else for their problems, (2) they actually listen to what the American people want, (3) put the country ahead of their need for power, and (4) they try to do something in a bi-partisan way instead of "my way or the highway". I have never seen such a divisive administration in my long life and am embarrassed that we are expected to respect these rulers.

    November 21, 2013 09:25 pm at 9:25 pm |
  20. KBNJ

    Well, what comes around goes around. Any Dems up for a wager on how much press time CNN will dedicate to Dems whining about all the 'evil' Republican nominations in 2016 they can't stop?

    November 21, 2013 09:26 pm at 9:26 pm |
  21. Eric

    This may bite the Democrats in the rear in the future, but the GOP has cried wolf too many times, requiring 60 votes for EVERYTHING and basically trying to make sure nothing ever gets done, threatening filibuster non-stop. I can't recall how many times over the past 3 years they were warned if they don't cooperate on something the Democrats were going to change the filibuster rules.

    November 21, 2013 09:29 pm at 9:29 pm |
  22. bob_lawbla

    and the Dems will be the loudest whiners when this self-serving change is used against them. Karma.

    November 21, 2013 09:34 pm at 9:34 pm |
  23. labman57

    Congressional Republicans have no clear idea what they are FOR, only what they are against - i.e., pretty much anyone who the Obama Administration nominates for an appointment, any program that the White House promotes, or any piece of legislation that Senate Democrats propose to bring to a vote.
    And so Senate Republicans have been invoking the filibuster as often as they use toilet paper, for no other reason than "it's within our right to do so".

    In short, the GOP has resigned itself to serve as little more than a speed-bump on the road to progress. The time was well-overdue for the Senate majority to steamroll the obstructionists by restricting - albeit limited in scope - the ability of Senate Republicans to abuse the filibuster process.

    November 21, 2013 09:38 pm at 9:38 pm |
  24. Vic of New York

    The New York Times only today published an expose of the Republican plan to use a methodical misinformation campaign to attack the Affordable Healthcare Act – and to use thier Congressional Committies to instigate fake investigations of the "failures" of the AHA as a ruse for manipulating public oppinion.

    So what's there left to negotiate about? If I were the Democrats and the President, I wuold throw down the gauntlet and begin investigating and indicting every Republican in Congress. This is civil war, and unfortunately it needs to be fought as a war. The President does America a disservice by being as tolerant as he has.

    November 21, 2013 09:44 pm at 9:44 pm |
  25. Aaron

    If only the Democrats had grown a pair years ago. Let the Republicans cry. Fight fire with fire. Start cramming things down their throats like they claim Democrats do anyway.

    November 21, 2013 09:48 pm at 9:48 pm |
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