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. Sniffit

    "Out of over 200 nominees, the GOP has only blocked 2"

    Absolutely incorrect. I don't know where you got your numbers but that's 100% wrong. Try again.

    November 21, 2013 12:25 pm at 12:25 pm |
  2. popeye1128

    Just do it!

    November 21, 2013 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  3. coyoteliberty

    Talk about short sighted decisions...when Republicans hold the house and senate again after 2014 elections, Democrats will be kicking themselves in the butt....

    November 21, 2013 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  4. Mark in Montana

    Just what we need in Washington.....more bickering and partisanship. Thanks Harry Reid.

    November 21, 2013 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  5. Loathstheright

    When you have Republicans committing treason you need to cut the racist, traitors out of the process. Do it Reid, do it for the good of the country.

    November 21, 2013 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  6. Mike

    Wouldn't it be wonderful to scoop up all of our Government and dump them on a deserted island? Sure would make me feel better!

    November 21, 2013 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  7. ConcernedCitizenVoter

    Filibusters are totally pointless. It's just a tool the minority can use to throw an adult-size baby fit because they are not getting their way. If the majority votes for something, then it passes. Simple as that! It doesn't matter which side you're on because eventually it will benefit your side. But it is what's right!

    Furthermore, I don't think the house or senate majority leader should be able to block the voting of a bill just because they don't like it. That is so much worse than filibustering. It's flat-out obstruction of the democratic process!

    November 21, 2013 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  8. Working Dude

    I would hate to play cards with him. He would just call it "I Win". Just like the little kid on Big Daddy. If you cant win by the rules just cheat or change them.

    November 21, 2013 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  9. Data Driven

    @NSL,

    "I'm a Dem. I don't think making this change will help the GOP win more seats in the House or Senate."

    But that's not the point. The point is: the government needs to function as per the prescriptions of the United States Constitution. Right now, it's not. It needs fixing. As to this:

    "What I implore Reid to do is make the GOP actually filibuster in order to filibuster. Make the GOP get on the floor of the Senate and talk, and talk, and talk. Make them follow the rules instead of merely threaten to do so"

    Well, they'll say, Fine, we'll just go ahead and do that. And the filibuster rules in the U.S. Senate are MUCH easier to play by than, say, what Wendy Davis had to deal with in Texas Legislature.

    No, let's get to the root of the problem - removing the filibuster to presidential appointments ENTIRELY.

    November 21, 2013 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  10. JJ

    What goes around, comes around. You want to spend 6 years obstructing and destructing? Time to get mowed down and buried under.

    November 21, 2013 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  11. Simon

    American
    You may get your wish if you threaten elected leaders.

    November 21, 2013 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  12. DJ

    What privilege has Obama earned as president that he would be granted his unprecedented right to have his appointments approved without any vetting at all ? All past presidents regardless of party affiliation have faced the threat of filibuster for their appointees. There is no reason this president just like all of his predecessors should abide by the rules of the senate. Harry Reid needs to recognize that he isn't the president's lap dog and he is employed by a different and distinct branch of our government.

    November 21, 2013 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  13. John Brown

    Reid and the Tea Party are trying everything to destroy this country, extreme measures at every corner! This has huge implications, maybe more than the debt ceiling. Why are both parties allowing their fringes to drive this, the US and the world needs New Democrat and Republican leadership today. If we wait until 2016 it might be to late, first party to control this will have my vote for decades.

    November 21, 2013 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  14. Jean Sartre

    This is probably the one option left to stop the obstruction and make the senate relevant again!

    McConnell made a promise over a year ago to do due diligence and stop the OBSTRUCTION; amazingly, he LIED!

    Again, the rules change would not apply to Supreme Court nominees or legislation–only to executive and judicial nominees.

    November 21, 2013 12:27 pm at 12:27 pm |
  15. bskb

    Quick! Somebody talk about something other than Obamacare!

    November 21, 2013 12:27 pm at 12:27 pm |
  16. terry nord

    Harry and Dems only have year left in control of senate.Harrys new office will be ready when janitor is moved out.

    November 21, 2013 12:27 pm at 12:27 pm |
  17. Data Driven

    @Obvious,

    "Go ahead and do it. The Republicans are going to take the Senate back next year anyway. THEN, we will see how smart you are."

    Perhaps so! So why all the poutrage from your conservative brethren and sistren?

    November 21, 2013 12:27 pm at 12:27 pm |
  18. Scott Independent

    both parties have failed us miserably

    November 21, 2013 12:27 pm at 12:27 pm |
  19. elnuevocicero

    What goes around comes around, just remember that

    November 21, 2013 12:27 pm at 12:27 pm |
  20. paul reynolds

    About Time!!!

    The embedded Terrorist Republicons have been obstructing the U.S. Government for years now!

    November 21, 2013 12:28 pm at 12:28 pm |
  21. reallyamused

    Guess they have to do SOMETHING to look tough these days.

    November 21, 2013 12:28 pm at 12:28 pm |
  22. Jerry Okamura

    Didn't democrats create the very rule they are now trying to change?

    November 21, 2013 12:28 pm at 12:28 pm |
  23. llmoss

    Of course, the American people have not given you the votes to pass it and if you can't "deem" it to have passed, what other un-American, totalitarian method is left. The Democrats have no use or respect for the law, none.

    But, just remember Democrats, what you sow, you reap and others that will come that are not Democrats, and then you Democrats will scream about the precedents you yourselves have set.

    November 21, 2013 12:28 pm at 12:28 pm |
  24. Sam

    Go ahead make my day!
    When your party becomes the minority Mr. Reid, you will be blame, because you can filibuster anymore. Ha!!

    November 21, 2013 12:28 pm at 12:28 pm |
  25. Mark R

    Two comments: First – CNN's pathetic description of this business. From the article, you'd think that Reid is sontemplating ending ALL filibusters, but that's not true. It's only filibusters of Presidential appointments, and doesn't include the Supreme Court. This should have been stated up front. Second, and more important is the REASON that Reid is moving forward. And this is the point that shows the ignorance of so many of the commenters here.

    The filibustering of nominees by the Senate Republicans is motivated by the desire to prevent what is now a very conservative court, and one that is seen as a stepping-stone to the Supreme Court, from moving in a more liberal direction with the appointment of 3 Obama nominees. The Republicans are blocking these nominees for purely political reasons. If the Democrats allow this to happen, they have basically given in to an unprecedented power grab by the Republicans, not the other way around.

    As usal, the facts are more complicated than the evidence of many of the simple-minded comments here suggest.

    November 21, 2013 12:28 pm at 12:28 pm |
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