November 21st, 2013
09:17 AM ET
1 year 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. Catori Shadi

    About damned time ! The filibuster was an admirable idea, when instituted. But it is time for the will of the majority in each branch of government to be the determining factor – regardless which party is in power in that part of government.

    November 21, 2013 09:50 am at 9:50 am |
  2. Jack

    Republicans grow up! It's Graham & Rand that are the problem. If my son and his college can see this and they are conservatives, why can't the Republicans see it!

    November 21, 2013 09:50 am at 9:50 am |
  3. destroyerofeconomies

    It will be nice to have this precedent set by the democrats so that after the landslide in next years mid-term elections republicans will have the same option available to them.

    November 21, 2013 09:50 am at 9:50 am |
  4. Enough is Enough

    What a smoke screen! This is nothing more than the Dems once again saying it's all the Republicans fault! THEY are the problem! Sorry Dems – the problems we are facing are your doing......YOU passed Obamacare with NO Republican support. The IRS, NSA and Benghazi messes happened under your watch. The national debt has doubled under Obama....while we learn of more and more of his buddies getting government money. Yes Democrats – YOU own these issues and the voters will not let you run away from them. Thank God you haven't given everyone food stamps, mortgage breaks and free cell phones in order to buy votes....Lord knows you're trying to!!

    November 21, 2013 09:50 am at 9:50 am |
  5. Mike L

    If you don't get your way change the rules. Its the Liberal way lets be sure that we can push our agenda on everyone by any means possible.

    November 21, 2013 09:51 am at 9:51 am |
  6. tigertom

    It will come back to bite him in the future. hen the dems are in the minority they won't like it.

    November 21, 2013 09:51 am at 9:51 am |
  7. DonN

    Pull it off Harry. All the GOP has to offer is hot air anyway.

    November 21, 2013 09:51 am at 9:51 am |
  8. banlarson

    This will have the same affect as a yo-yo on our country. Simple majority in the Senate would allow for total partisan laws being passed at the expense of half the country. This has to be stopped; our wise forefathers set this up for a reason.

    November 21, 2013 09:51 am at 9:51 am |
  9. ZIG

    what's broke won't be fixed by changing this

    November 21, 2013 09:52 am at 9:52 am |
  10. Infinitus Max

    If you can't win by playing by the rules, change the rules.

    November 21, 2013 09:53 am at 9:53 am |
  11. Just_One

    What comes around goes around Harry; you're setting a precedent that I am sure will come back to bite you and I don't want to hear any whining when it does

    November 21, 2013 09:53 am at 9:53 am |
  12. DontPretend

    Weel, once again, the Democrats are showing an absolute contempt for the rules of democracy.

    November 21, 2013 09:53 am at 9:53 am |
  13. e embry

    Do it Harry! So tried of the republicans and there obstructing everything.

    November 21, 2013 09:54 am at 9:54 am |
  14. Bob Head

    Reid will do so much damage to his party if he pulls this stunt at the present time.

    November 21, 2013 09:54 am at 9:54 am |
  15. srcactus

    This is the SAME majority that brought us Obamacare. And speaks volumes!

    November 21, 2013 09:54 am at 9:54 am |
  16. DaveVB

    So it's not sacrosanct after all........and the TEA party are the radicals......RRIIiiiiiiiigggghhhhhttttt! All hail Emperor Obama. HarryPocket vetos entire pieces of legislation regularly. Harry "my way or the highway" Reid.

    November 21, 2013 09:54 am at 9:54 am |
  17. Johnny DC

    It would be kind of funny watching the historic demise of our liberty unfold in real time... if it wasn't utterly tragic in every single facet.

    Democrats have set things in motion that will bring tyranny from both parties for decades to come.

    This is what you get, sheep. Our desolation.

    November 21, 2013 09:55 am at 9:55 am |
  18. Kevin Alexander

    "Never let a crisis go to waste !" Rahm Emmanuel, former cabinet member of Obama's. Democrats are now resigned to the fact they are going to create as many crisis' as possible to push their agenda; payday is coming for you all.

    November 21, 2013 09:55 am at 9:55 am |
  19. tanthonyS

    Filibuster: should have been legally abolished a long time ago.

    November 21, 2013 09:56 am at 9:56 am |
  20. Larry

    Geeze, It's about time something was done. I think a spanking would be appropriate for these whining, crying, foot-stomping brats.

    November 21, 2013 09:56 am at 9:56 am |
  21. ShawnDH

    GO HARRY!

    Republicans' pathological obstruction is un-Democratic and disgraceful.

    November 21, 2013 09:56 am at 9:56 am |
  22. health

    Go for it. It's not like it would make the environment any worse than it is.

    November 21, 2013 09:56 am at 9:56 am |
  23. sm5574

    The nuclear option won't "fix" anything, anymore than a nuclear warhead would. All it will do is permanently contaminate an already lethally toxic environment.

    November 21, 2013 09:56 am at 9:56 am |
  24. Pete Schatz

    I hope he does it. Finally. Should have happened a long time ago.

    November 21, 2013 09:57 am at 9:57 am |
  25. Name

    You go Senator Reid. The Republicans continue to try and destroy the President at every turn. They are prejudice and mean spirited.

    November 21, 2013 09:57 am at 9:57 am |
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