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. archie

    So under Bush it took an average of 211 day to get through the nomination process and under nobama its is taking and average of 228. Wow that filibuster power really causes a problem. I hope the American people realize that the idiot in the white house and the majority are on the verge of destroying this great county.

    November 21, 2013 09:49 pm at 9:49 pm |
  2. Tisha

    Affirmative Action Presidents need Rule Changes and The Bar lowered so they can succeed in the real world

    November 22, 2013 08:09 am at 8:09 am |
  3. kandw101

    Thank the T-Party for dredging up the likes of Sharon Angle and the rest of the losers backed by the T-Party in Senate races that left Harry Reid and the Dems in charge in the Senate.
    The Republican Party has to represent the majority of American voters with candidates who are NOT far right if they ever want to be the majority party again.

    November 22, 2013 08:10 am at 8:10 am |
  4. 2Smart4Tea

    So the conservatives lose again – you'd think they would stop complaining, they always lose, it's a culture built for pathetic losers who know nothing except obstructing progress. Frightened little children, afraid of the future and clinging to a past which never existed. Oh well, maybe the poser of the loser has been at least partially broken.

    November 22, 2013 08:12 am at 8:12 am |
  5. Sky Wizard

    Wouldn't it be great if the elected children could ditch the war metaphors? "nuclear option", war on terror, drugs, poverty homelessness... Not everything needs to be a war. The eggs I made this morning were not part of my war against hunger. They were just some eggs. We win wars through violent domination; we solve problems with critical thinking, and focused collaboration. (although no one collaborated with me on the eggs–that was all me.)

    November 22, 2013 08:13 am at 8:13 am |
  6. Lurker

    dont like the rules change them

    November 22, 2013 08:16 am at 8:16 am |
  7. voter57

    Here we go again with the threats from the right that if they don't get there way, they will make the American people pay by refusing to agree to anything, Their blocks of nominees are purely political and it is time for these games to STOP! Thank you Harry Reid. Republicans, quit your crying.

    November 22, 2013 08:21 am at 8:21 am |
  8. Nick

    How silly is it that the top 3 Democrats – Obama, Biden, and Reid – all spoke out vehemently against this option in 2005 when they were the minority, calling it a "right" that must be maintained, only now to reverse course when it doesn't benefit them? You want to know what tyranny looks like, folks? You're about to find out.

    November 22, 2013 08:22 am at 8:22 am |
  9. voter57

    good for you Harry Reid. Quit crying Reps......You need to start doing your job instead of your mantra of "Just say no"

    November 22, 2013 08:25 am at 8:25 am |
  10. anthony

    As of November 7, 2013, the total number of Obama Article III judgeship nominees to be confirmed by the United States Senate is 211, including two Justices to the Supreme Court of the United States, 39 judges to the United States Courts of Appeals, 168 judges to the United States district courts, and two judges to the United States Court of International Trade.[2] The number of nominations currently awaiting Senate action is 53.[3] There are currently 18 vacancies on the United States Courts of Appeals, 75 vacancies on the United States district courts,[3] and 17 announced federal judicial vacancies that will occur before the end of Obama's second term.[4] Obama has not made any recess appointments to the federal courts

    November 22, 2013 08:25 am at 8:25 am |
  11. Ohio Patti

    If a this will disallow a highly-paid politician in the Senate from reading Dr. Seuss books to his children as part of his filibuster strategy, I support it.

    November 22, 2013 08:26 am at 8:26 am |
  12. anthony

    Following is a list of all United States federal judges appointed by President George W. Bush during his presidency.[1] In total Bush appointed two Justices to the Supreme Court of the United States (including one Chief Justice), 62 judges to the United States Courts of Appeals, and 261 judges to the United States district courts.

    So in reality President obama has had 50 less judges assigned to the court then president bush. So what is the issue here?

    November 22, 2013 08:28 am at 8:28 am |
  13. Amber

    Redeye, how is majority rules a dictatorship?

    November 22, 2013 08:28 am at 8:28 am |
  14. Tom

    Harry Reid has placed the democratic party with the way socialist's work such as Russia's Putin, Cuba's Castro brothers, Venezuela's Chavez and now the new one, Argentine and all of the socialistic countries and how they operate. America better wake up and change the presidency, senate, and congressional democrats and get back to a democracy that was founded by our forefathers.

    November 22, 2013 08:31 am at 8:31 am |
  15. Dave

    News flash: Tyrant embraces tyranny

    November 22, 2013 08:32 am at 8:32 am |
  16. Paul

    Chris Christie won with 60 per cent and called it a landslide. Yet, in the senate, 59 percent means a vote is defeated. The change is only for judicial nomination and cabinet positions. Well past time for a change.

    November 22, 2013 08:39 am at 8:39 am |
  17. Anonymous

    I remember when we were just 'floating in the bowl". It looks like the Dems just hit the "flush" button.

    November 22, 2013 08:40 am at 8:40 am |
  18. FrmrMrine

    Mitch McConnell thought that ending the filibuster for judicial nominees was a good idea a few years back when the Republicans threatened to do that because of the very few filibusters by the dems at the time. At that time, the dems caved and came to a deal with the Republicans tin which BOTH sides agreed not to abuse the filibuster.

    But the Republicans broke yet another promise and now they're whining about the dems using the very same tactic that the Republicans thought was such a good idea when they were in the majority.

    No one needs to listen to the whiners. They only got what they asked for. Moving on.

    November 22, 2013 08:50 am at 8:50 am |
  19. Mike

    This will come back to haunt the Dems. Right or wrong, ALL of them opposed this action back when they were the minority and voiced strong opinions and long lasting effects should it ever happen. It's another case of hypocrisy from an admin. that is less transparent than any previous admin. and has done just about everything they accused past presidents of. Truth is, if you can't get someone else to compromise on some things by giving in on a few of your own, you don't deserve the position. We will see the dems cry foul in the future when the tide turns. Then, there will be more excuses we should expect to hear as that's what this party has become. used to be a supporter and can't remember a more divisive pres. or culture of politics than today.

    November 22, 2013 08:51 am at 8:51 am |
  20. Phil

    the republicans have no right to complain...after changing the rules in the house where ONLY the speaker or his appointee can call a vote...the dems are just giving them a taste of their own medicine. The filibuster is being abused to stall the democratic process. but this could potentially backfire if the republicans regain the senate majority...so I say screw the "D vs. R, right vs. left, red vs. blue...lets vote for independent candidates, its the only way to stop the madness!

    November 22, 2013 08:54 am at 8:54 am |
  21. bob

    So its ok for Republicans in the House to change the rules the night before the shutdown, so that only the speaker can introduce legislation, effectively neutering hte power of every single other Rep, and giving him total dictatorial control of the House.....forever.......that's ok...

    But when democrats change the rules to stop constant obstructionist filibusters that hinge a single premise, "stop any and all actions by democrats"...that's not ok?

    typical hypocrital republicans

    November 22, 2013 09:01 am at 9:01 am |
  22. Walter

    Our system of checks and balances has been compromised. A very sad day for America. We the people are not served well by this. Gridlock is better than one side being able to ram through their ideology. For those partisans who disagree, just wait. This cuts both ways. In the long run, we'll all be abused by it.

    November 22, 2013 09:02 am at 9:02 am |
  23. FredKelly

    And so goes 225 years of Congressional precedent. Truly stunning.

    November 22, 2013 09:03 am at 9:03 am |
  24. JV

    This stuff only happens with dictators, and their cronies. What does that say about America. Scary stuff. Thanks dems.

    November 22, 2013 09:08 am at 9:08 am |
  25. Whining

    Get over it, GOP!

    November 22, 2013 09:09 am at 9:09 am |
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