November 21st, 2013
09:17 AM ET
5 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 (2,692 Responses)
  1. Fair is Fair

    The left will love you for this, Harry. Knock yourself out. You're setting a very dangerous precedent. By all means, proceed. Watch out for those pesky "unintended consequences" though, Sparky.

    November 21, 2013 09:36 am at 9:36 am |
  2. Jason G

    Good! It's high time that a Democrat grew a spine and finally treated these Republican obstructionists as the worthless trash they are.

    November 21, 2013 09:36 am at 9:36 am |
  3. Mike Hunt

    harry and barry continue to disappoint

    November 21, 2013 09:37 am at 9:37 am |
  4. ImvotingforHillary

    The GOP is visceral in its hatred for government because of a black man in charge. If Obama was white they would at least try to compromise.

    November 21, 2013 09:38 am at 9:38 am |
  5. Sergeant

    There should be an option to fire republicans.

    November 21, 2013 09:40 am at 9:40 am |
  6. JohnVoter

    The way Republicans have conducted themselves, they should go to prison.

    November 21, 2013 09:40 am at 9:40 am |
  7. Patrick B

    I'm not an expert, but is this not any better than what the Dems are accusing the Republicans of doing?

    November 21, 2013 09:40 am at 9:40 am |
  8. Ableza

    About time. If they want to have filibusters they should at least be real ones.

    November 21, 2013 09:43 am at 9:43 am |
  9. tv22

    This should seal the deal for Senate Republicans in 2014 and then watch what gets passed without a simple majority. Thanks Harry!

    November 21, 2013 09:44 am at 9:44 am |
  10. Nice.....

    So with only 5 votes from a filibuster breaking ability. Sen. Reid's leadership is so poor that he has been unable to convince 5 Republican members that the nominees are right and should be confirmed, he needs to play the rule change option. And when the Democrats are no longer the majority, whenever that time happens, the complaints about the Republicans will be massive when they use this.

    November 21, 2013 09:45 am at 9:45 am |
  11. Hillcrester

    The Senate GOP has brought this on themselves by admittedly holding up the nomination of people they agree should be confirmed just to get leverage on unrelated matters. The Dems have waited long enough for this to be resolved through normal means–time to let the Senate move on to up-or-down votes on nominees.

    November 21, 2013 09:45 am at 9:45 am |
  12. daviddavid

    harry must GO...............Simply b/c there is a D next to the guy who is lying that's A-OK. That is why the country is lost because of fools that worship at the altar of the Dems. Blind bigotry, & blind ideology in the refusal to accept what Obama and the Dems did and hold them accountable

    November 21, 2013 09:45 am at 9:45 am |
  13. john

    Finally. Now we have a majority rules as it should be not a minority rules as it has been by rethugs abusing the filibuster. Did you know that rethugs have used the filibuster more the last 6 years then all filibusters combined in the history of the senate. Take a stand harry against these lunatics tea partiers. Dont they know tea parties are for little girls with imaginary friends.

    November 21, 2013 09:45 am at 9:45 am |
  14. plaztikjezuz

    "Patrick Leahy of Vermont, now say things are so broken in Washington that the nuclear option may be the only way to fix it."

    Ummm.... No it is not.

    What ever happened to compromise?

    November 21, 2013 09:45 am at 9:45 am |
  15. yem

    I think H. Reid must use all options possible to move forward. We have seen how GOP Rep, Senator T Cruz cost the country millions of dollars and immeasurable pain to millions of people filibustering!

    November 21, 2013 09:46 am at 9:46 am |
  16. Jim Steele

    Turn about is fair play.

    You would think that with ObamaCare going down the tubes, they would be moving toward middle ground.

    November 21, 2013 09:47 am at 9:47 am |
  17. Rich E

    Tread carefully, Senate. These kinds of decisions can be a single stone that creates an avalanche. The wiser course would be for the Senate to use the Advise and Consent portion of the Constitution as it was intended, instead of a tool to advance unrelated political agendas.

    November 21, 2013 09:47 am at 9:47 am |
  18. Terry B

    There is only one way to stop the Nazi party in their obstructionist ways and that is the so called nuclear option. I think they may want their fascist views stopped in such a manner so that should the voting public cave into the Nazi party's views it would allow them to take the Senate and than they could put horrid judges on the bench without the minority party being able to stop them.

    November 21, 2013 09:48 am at 9:48 am |
  19. Econ for dummies

    Republicans held our nation's debt hostage and some democrats are worried about what precedent they will set by useing the nuclear option????

    November 21, 2013 09:48 am at 9:48 am |
  20. Logictox

    Remember, what goes around comes around.

    November 21, 2013 09:49 am at 9:49 am |
  21. CB FL

    It will make me happy to see Harry show some stones and stand up to PEPUGS. They don't care about anything except tax breaks for the rich.

    November 21, 2013 09:49 am at 9:49 am |
  22. Evergreen

    A rule change is the only way to stop the filibuster abuse. As the reporter stated, Democrates have been reluctant to do this out of repect for the institution. Unfortunantely, the GOP does not share that respect.

    November 21, 2013 09:49 am at 9:49 am |
  23. Quest

    Good. Give nothing to the snatchers of our rights. The Republican party is a hateful, rude, Christian-mafia.

    November 21, 2013 09:49 am at 9:49 am |
  24. bocephus3006

    democrats are like little kids " don't like the rules , just change them"

    November 21, 2013 09:50 am at 9:50 am |
  25. fair is fair

    If the House can pass a resolution that only the Speaker or designee can bring a bill up for a vote, I have no problem with the Senate "going nuclear".

    Washington is broken.

    November 21, 2013 09:50 am at 9:50 am |
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