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. Shay

    Seriously? How do people sleep at night knowing they are doing more harm to the country of origin? With small samples, and little and no sacrifice? With these jabs, and no thought of, "What have you done for America"? Alas, America was but an experiment.

    November 21, 2013 12:33 pm at 12:33 pm |
  2. smartfor

    Out with ALL of the incumbents! We need to fire every senator and congressman and start over from scratch! I keep waiting to see the physical fights breakout during one of the sessions. You know what I mean, Like in England and places like that. I personally could care less about republican or democrat! I want some people in office who will do what they are WELL PAID to do, Run the government!

    November 21, 2013 12:33 pm at 12:33 pm |
  3. conoclast

    The senate is in danger of BECOMING obsolete?? When the very concept of Majority Rule has been subverted the way it has by McConnell's cynical abuse of the filibuster the "world's greatest deliberative body" has been rendered feckless!

    DO IT, HARRY!!

    November 21, 2013 12:33 pm at 12:33 pm |
  4. TheLeftWing

    It is sad but necessary that it has come to this. However, when one party's goal is to break government and do so by minority rule something has to be done.

    November 21, 2013 12:33 pm at 12:33 pm |
  5. ObjectiveGuy

    That would be the first step in the death of Democracy, as we know it. We would essentially have Totalitarianism, which is certainly Obama's goal. May as well shred the Constitution while he's at it, because the net effect will be the same.

    November 21, 2013 12:33 pm at 12:33 pm |
  6. kns

    this could be a really good idea or a really bad idea but something has to be done about these lame-o republicans who have zero clue how to manage this country.

    November 21, 2013 12:34 pm at 12:34 pm |
  7. ohioan

    This is long overdue....Do it now, Harry!

    November 21, 2013 12:34 pm at 12:34 pm |
  8. John/kc

    In the republican controlled House, only two people, the speaker and his designate, are allowed to bring a bill to the floor for a vote. Sounds like republicans are reaping what they sew. Gerrymandering voting districts to favor themselves and making the House of Representatives a two man dictatorship.

    November 21, 2013 12:34 pm at 12:34 pm |
  9. Greg

    The Senate is suppossed to advise and consent. A filibuster does neither and has been abused. The tactic was never to be used on a daily basis. A filibuster, an extraordinary action, has become all to ordinary.

    November 21, 2013 12:34 pm at 12:34 pm |
  10. Agrav8td

    I agree with crabapples12, the people of this country has the government it deserves.

    November 21, 2013 12:34 pm at 12:34 pm |
  11. Anonymous

    Our Federal Government was formed by the people for the people but apparently our currnent government has forgotten that fact. They were elected to represent all of the people not just the Republicans or Democrats but they are so full of hate for eachother parties that nothing is getting done. They even allowed our government to be shut down costing us millions of dollars trying to enforce their will on eachother while the people they are suppose to be serving suffered for it. It is time that both parties put away their hate for eachother and start working for the good of all Americans and if they can't do it we need to get someone in there who can. We were formed on a compromise and we need to go back to that.

    November 21, 2013 12:34 pm at 12:34 pm |
  12. jerrymcm1970

    It's about time. 168 filibusters of Presidential nominees in the entire history of the United States and HALF of them have taken place under President Obama. It's ridiculous. GOP obstructionism has to stop.

    November 21, 2013 12:35 pm at 12:35 pm |
  13. greg

    I really wish Pelosi and Reid would have to retire. Same old crap by 2 old biddies........

    November 21, 2013 12:35 pm at 12:35 pm |
  14. hotstuffpdx

    Good. It's about time. If the cons won't let the judges come to a vote then this is the only option. It's time to fill those vacant positions.

    November 21, 2013 12:35 pm at 12:35 pm |
  15. ScottC

    Do it, Harry, and see what happens. It, like O-care, will blow up in your incompetent face.

    November 21, 2013 12:35 pm at 12:35 pm |
  16. JERRY O

    This was a MAJOR TABO when the Republicans were in control of the Senate. Now that the DEMS are there it's OK...?!?
    The whole CONGRESS needs to be replaced starting with REID and PELOSI....

    November 21, 2013 12:36 pm at 12:36 pm |
  17. Jeannius

    I think he should invoke it! it would be the equivalent of taking away someone's driver's license for driving irresponsibly or dangerously! Which, in political terms, is more or less what the GOP/Tea Party has done! They have abused their right to filibuster, and therefore, should loose or at least have suspended, their license to filibuster!

    November 21, 2013 12:36 pm at 12:36 pm |
  18. jack

    It's pretty sad when they are only trying to appoint nominees to fill a job and all the Republicans can do is block everything. The administration shouldn't even need Republican approvals to fill these positions unless it was for the Supreme court. All they want to do is fill a job for the administration so things can get done and Republicans won't let anyone fill the position. What a joke, it should only require a 51 vote majority anyway........

    November 21, 2013 12:36 pm at 12:36 pm |
  19. Majito Querido

    Come on guys, let's chill a bit...no dead wishes...let Sen Reid do what he think is expedient now. Less than 15 months later we'll see how his actions today will play out.

    Sadly, the US experiment is coming to a close. Little by little, day by day. Now we have is tyranny with a POTUS that believes he is king and needs no input from congress and now we'll see a congress that wants to shutoff the minority concerns.

    Apparently US is becoming like those banana republics all those immigrants come from, where the rich and powerful politicians do as they wish with impunity while the little people are restricted to cleaning toilets, cooking and serving the tables.

    November 21, 2013 12:36 pm at 12:36 pm |
  20. Kumbaya

    Republicans have forced the hands of Democrats thanks to historical levels of obstructionism. Not that the Democrats were not already chomping at the bit to do this anyway. If you are going to obstruct for political reasons you deserve what is coming to you. We are not talking about obstruction for legit logical reasons here which is more of the same from the GOP. It amazes me that the Republicans continue to throw logs on to the fire. Americans already blame you for the shut down because of obstructionism and you want to continue down this path? Not that Dems don't have their hands dirty at all because they do as well but Republicans are not even trying to do anything other than make political showmanship a new art form.

    CONGRESS is at historical lows in approval ratings. This is a bi-partisan failure of both sides failing to work together in any meaningful way. Having said that you don't open that dialogue of cooperation by continuing down the path of obstructionism versus cooperation. Congress needs an enema.

    November 21, 2013 12:36 pm at 12:36 pm |
  21. keven

    The filibuster is an outdated concept in todays (and tomorrows) partisan politics.
    It should limited in some way (time limit, simple majority) or done away with completely.
    Let the cards fall as they may and move on !!!

    November 21, 2013 12:36 pm at 12:36 pm |
  22. AR is watching

    Dear Sen. Pryor,

    I promise if you vote for this, you will join Blanche Lincoln as a former senator in about a year...

    November 21, 2013 12:37 pm at 12:37 pm |
  23. Sue

    Are they blocking the nomination for cause or just to be horses' posteriors? I think the nuclear option is brilliant, as long as the Dems remember that they started it when the Repubs pull it on them. Quite frankly, every single one of these people need to be voted out, regardless of party. They are there to do a job, and they've done a magnificent job of *not* doing it. Gov't shutdown, now "nuclear option"? Geez... how come us regular people don't get to filibuster or just shut things down when we don't get our way? They're acting like toddlers.

    Next election, I'm ignoring party lines. I'm voting out every single incumbent. I'm done with these people.

    November 21, 2013 12:37 pm at 12:37 pm |
  24. Brad

    The majority have had their way far too often lately and look at the mess this country is in. I think a few more filibusters are in order, not less.

    November 21, 2013 12:37 pm at 12:37 pm |
  25. Name carl

    Good for the Dems...Go Hillary 2016.

    November 21, 2013 12:37 pm at 12:37 pm |
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