November 21st, 2013
09:17 AM ET
10 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. Brian from Denver

    At last! Let's end the gridlock. Obama's greatest legacy now will be the appointment of hundreds of judges for open positions that Republicans have been blocking for YEARS. Let's get the Consumer Protection Bureau up and running! Get the EPA back on track. Get the rules set for Dodd-Frank and put the banks under Federal control for a change.

    This is GOOD for America! And when the Republicans are in charge, they get to do the same! Actually, Republicans never faced the kind of obstruction that has marred the Obama presidency, so it will be business as usual for them.

    President Obama was correct when he said that all of this filibustering and blocking appointments was nothing more than an attempt to re-litigate the last election. It's over. Barack Obama won. Now let's get the country back to work!

    November 22, 2013 11:29 am at 11:29 am |
  2. American Worker

    Mutually assured destruction?

    Harry Reid was losing his push to subjugate the whole of the U.S.A. so he nuked not only the process but the integrity of an Inclusive and Fair Democracy.

    November 22, 2013 11:35 am at 11:35 am |
  3. Nate

    I for one am so exhaustingly over the partisan bickering and trying to sabotage the opposing party. We need a leader to unify the country. That's what their job is...not to push their agenda through at any cost.

    It's incredible that this partisan mind-think has even trickled down to the average american.

    And that is sad indeed.

    November 22, 2013 11:35 am at 11:35 am |
  4. American Worker

    Now we will have extreme shifts in policy and governance with each change in party control over government.

    November 22, 2013 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  5. Oh say can you see....

    whether you want to believe it or not, this " thing" that many have against President Obama is wide and deep. Thanks Senator Reid for risking whatever repercussions will come from this gutsy move. When you're backed into a corner, most people come out swinging...

    November 22, 2013 11:38 am at 11:38 am |
  6. Wait a minute

    What is going on here! We are all Americans I think? Both sides are talking like the USA and Russia. If we keep up this hatred for each other, We might as well change our country name to the DIVIED STATES of AMERICA.

    I am totally disgusted by how people in our country speak about the opposite party like they are true enemies. The President needs to come out of his office and sit down with both sides and be the negotiator, to bring both sides together. That's his job, be PRESIDENCIAL !

    November 22, 2013 11:50 am at 11:50 am |
  7. jefflz

    The Republican Party's sworn agenda has been to block any action taken by Obama since he first took office in January 2009. He has been criticized by his own party for trying to negotiate with the GOP stonewallers. The Tea Party-controlled Republicans expect Obama and the Democrats to do nothing while they paralyze the nation. Obama has been filibustered 32 times or 10 times more than any Republican president in the past 60 years. The two-party system cannot function in this mode. Reid's action is long overdue. Enough is enough!!

    November 22, 2013 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  8. Andrew2005

    the BEST country (not a perfect country) is the history of Human kind is the USA. We arrive here after the founders of the nation gave us the United States Constitution... current day politicians are too corrupt to obey the Constitution because it imposes on ALL of them limit to their power. We must elect politicians that pledge to follow and protect the Constitution. At this rate we are becoming more and more like corrupt third world countries like Venezuela, Mexico Honduras, etc... if you think that is not bad

    November 22, 2013 12:24 pm at 12:24 pm |
  9. Anonymous

    Not a big fan of this, but really did not have any other choice. This is all on the Obstructionist Republicans and the TP who believe their only job is to oppose Anything from Obama no matter the cost to Americans. They showed it in the Government shutdown. Obama has had more nominations held up than ALL other Presidents Combined. We need our Government to work, not just bicker. This will allow a small portion of it to continue working. The Republicans have nobody to blame but themselves. This 'anything that Obama wants must be defeated' attitude is getting old and is hurting our Country. BTW, our Constitution allows this, so don't go there.

    November 22, 2013 12:30 pm at 12:30 pm |
  10. Bonnie

    The Kelly file on facebook has video of Obama, biden, Pelosi and Ried with very differant opions on this a few years ago.....Principles or Ethics anyone?

    November 22, 2013 12:31 pm at 12:31 pm |
  11. Andrew2005

    the BEST country (not a perfect country) is the USA. People from all oppressive governments want to emigrate to the USA for a chance of the AMERICAN DREAM. Just look at the current president, where he came from and where he is at. His success was possible because the Country is Noble and the America Dream is true…
    For some strange reason he is destroying the opportunity for ALL: to have a chance at the American Dream by his Social experiment in which the Government controls everything.
    Your health, all resources, money, education, environment, everything… Why, for just one reason, it gives politicians the power to do without accountability, and of course they exempt themselves of their own rules.
    The Founders of the nation gave us the United States Constitution... current day politicians are too corrupt to obey the Constitution because it imposes on ALL of them limit to their power. We must elect politicians that pledge to follow and protect the Constitution.
    At this rate we are becoming more and more like corrupt third world countries like Venezuela, Mexico Honduras, etc... if you think that is not bad you don’t know what you are talking about. God give us the wisdom to do what is right for the country and future generations

    November 22, 2013 12:39 pm at 12:39 pm |
  12. John Mann

    To the previous commenter who said removing the filibuster is somehow unconstitutional, you need to go back to school. The filibuster is not even mentioned in the constitution!

    And to the commenter who said, "I am totally disgusted by how people in our country speak about the opposite party like they are true enemies"...I agree. But we can lay the blame for this on hyper-partisan talk radio/tv and hyper-partisan reps in congress who are only to happy to watch us argue while they steal our tax monies and give it to their corporate masters.

    November 22, 2013 12:42 pm at 12:42 pm |
  13. Tim

    Democrats acting like children – again. Sad. These Democrats must be voted out of office. It is unfortunate that we do not have a way to recall them.

    November 22, 2013 12:43 pm at 12:43 pm |
  14. CJ

    Ya know, filibusters were designed to be not only "obstructionist" but disruptive also....by a bunch of folks who were smart enough to create the greatest country in history....I wish the left would stop using the word like it is a bad thing. It is a foundational piece of Checks and Balances....I kinda resent them belittling checks and balances like they are doing

    November 22, 2013 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  15. oreo

    Thank you Dems. Cannot wait until 2014, just remember you asked for it!

    November 22, 2013 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  16. Carl

    The continuing Obamacare fiasco, as well as the corruption made evident in the DOJ, IRS, NAS and EPA, has tilted the probability more strongly toward Republicans winning the Senate in 2014. Therefore Reid and Obama did the nuclear option so they could ramrod their agenda through the Senate prior to losing the Senate, and maybe the Presidential election as well.

    November 22, 2013 12:58 pm at 12:58 pm |
  17. Bill

    So much for a government of the people and for the people…

    November 22, 2013 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  18. sickofitall

    how amusing – and I am so glad the Democrats were the ones that took this approach...so when they lose the Senate in 2014 and the House votes to Impeach the Liar in Chief – we'll just need a simple majority vote in the Senate to remove him...works for me..

    November 22, 2013 01:11 pm at 1:11 pm |
  19. Stevo

    @KAF, I completely agree with you! Don't forget how Pelosi rammed the AHC law through and told everyone "...read it later." Well it's later and everyone under the sun thinks what was written is crap and now everyone is jumping through hoops to fix the crap. No matter how noble the effort was to help those who need help, they are responsible for a poorly written law because they did not want to get it as close to right the first time. That's like throwing together a crappy term paper, turning it in, getting a poor grade, and then telling the professor that since yoiu have more time now that you will fix it and turn it in later.

    November 22, 2013 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  20. notahistorianbut

    I'll join the bandwagon for 2014. I can't wait until more republicans lose their seats as they've been doing the last I heard. The tea party brand is losing to the mainstream republican. The tea party lost Virginia's statewide offices. The republican party has become the party of NO, NO, or and NO to EVERYTHING supported by this President. They won't bring to vote anything on immigration, voting rights, end discrimination against gays – BUT they desperately want to play the victim. When the senate was 50/50 during the Bush year's, the majority was determined with glee that the VP would be the tie breaker. At no other time historically has there been a minimum 60 vote count on EVERYTHING until Obama became President. What happens if its a Clinton landslide in 2016 (if she runs)? Can we expect more wasteful desk jockeying by the republicans to "make her a 1-term president"?

    November 22, 2013 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
  21. they brought it on themselves

    i noticed that the maddow show was the only one to site the actual history behind the vote – no other newscast i saw bothered with the unheralded fact that in all the prior presidencies 80+ (i forgot the # already) blocks to nominees occurred, whereas in obama's presidency that number itself has occurred by the republicans against his nominees. So they clearly brought it on themselves through their complete inability to compromise and do their stinkin job in the first place. So be it. They'll be thrilled to death to have it to pass completely bogus bills that hurt the american public whenever they manage to get the majority back.

    November 22, 2013 01:19 pm at 1:19 pm |
  22. Dave

    All you Republicans making threats better cough up the votes to back them. Otherwise you look very foolish.

    November 22, 2013 01:20 pm at 1:20 pm |
  23. ART

    Tim it isn't the Democrats acting like children it the Rethuglicans sore losers who are and have been since 2009. So to all you Rethuglicans I say in your face, its about time should of been done years ago

    November 22, 2013 01:25 pm at 1:25 pm |
  24. Person of Interest

    Funny thing but there really hasn't been a filibuster in years. They don't make you stand and read cooking books anymore, you literally just say you are going to filibuster and it happens. If somebody wants to actually talk for 2 days straight I say let them. I wish I could see someone with that type of conviction in the Senate.

    November 22, 2013 01:25 pm at 1:25 pm |
  25. cgattman

    Sen. Dianne Feinstein: “If the Republican leadership insists on forcing the nuclear option, the Senate becomes, ipso facto, the House of Representatives, where the majority rules Supreme, and the party in power can dominate, and control the agenda with absolute power.”

    Sen. Joseph Biden: “This nuclear option is ultimately an example of the arrogance of power. It is a fundamental power-grab.”

    Sen. Hillary Clinton: “You’ve got majority rule. You’ve got the Senate over here, where people can slow things down, where they can debate, something called the filibuster… you know, it seems like it’s a little less than efficient. Well, that’s right, it is. And deliberately designed to be so.”

    Sen. Dianne Feinstein: “The nuclear option, if successful, will turn the Senate into a body that could have its rules broken at any time by a majority of Senators unhappy with any position taken by the minority. It begins with judicial nominations. Next, will be executive appointments. And then, legislation.”

    Sen. Joe Biden: “I say to my friends on the Republican side, ‘you may own the field right now, but you won’t own it forever.’ And I pray God when the Democrats take back control we don’t make the kind of naked power grab you are doing.”

    November 22, 2013 01:32 pm at 1:32 pm |
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