November 21st, 2013
09:17 AM ET
8 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. Zedlok

    4 years too late.

    November 21, 2013 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  2. Crampon

    This will come in handy when the GOP takes the senate.

    November 21, 2013 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  3. greasemonkey

    If the GOP leadership was half as confident as they claim t be about their chances at regaining the majority in '14 they would support this wholeheartedly...........

    ......this should have been done as soon as the GOP insurgents had their inauguration day meeting where they plotted their strategy of complete obstruction of the elected majority....no matter what damage that would cause to the country.....

    November 21, 2013 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  4. Joe

    I say, let the Dems prevail on this motion,, And stick it to em when the Senate majority changes in 2014!

    November 21, 2013 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  5. Lardoggy

    Government always changing the rules to work against the peoples will,very sad!

    November 21, 2013 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  6. Data Driven

    Aaaannnd Scene.

    Good job, Harry!

    NOW, Democrats, let's show similar unification on Obamacare! (That goes for you too, Mr. President.)

    November 21, 2013 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  7. ConstAdvocate

    Harry thinks this will save the Senate from obsolescence, but it has no prayer of saving him from obsolescence.

    November 21, 2013 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  8. Willllburrrr

    If the repubs weren't so obstinate, this issue would never have some up in the first place. Have to get the Senate working again. This will be some progress toward that.

    November 21, 2013 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  9. Rick

    So just change the rules as you see fit?

    Just remember, what goes around comes around..................

    November 21, 2013 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  10. Alex

    Did someone just say the GOP is going to take the senate? lol, clearly he's not paying attention to all the seats being lost... The bubble never ceases to amaze me.

    November 21, 2013 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  11. High Info Voter

    Why would anyone have a problem with majority rules?

    November 21, 2013 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  12. Dr. Ray from Ohio

    Hallelujah! This is but one bypass around the obstructionist hell that the GOP put the country through the last 5 years. We need find more ways like this to get some work done during the next 3 years and beyond. I don't think the GOP will treat a woman President (Hillary) any better than it has treated an African American one.

    November 21, 2013 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  13. ShawnDH

    Hey Republicans: This is what you get when you abuse the system and ignore the will of the people. How's it taste?

    November 21, 2013 12:54 pm at 12:54 pm |
  14. tarura

    Great! This will come handy when libs lose the majority next year (will have buyer's remorse, but too late)

    November 21, 2013 12:54 pm at 12:54 pm |
  15. tom

    The Democrats must be pretty confident that they will always control the Senate.

    November 21, 2013 12:54 pm at 12:54 pm |
  16. patNY

    GOOD! Finally Reid fights back!

    November 21, 2013 12:54 pm at 12:54 pm |
  17. yankeemon90

    From democracy to dictatorship in one vote. Unbelievable.

    November 21, 2013 12:54 pm at 12:54 pm |
  18. Eric

    One of the most notable filibusters of the 1960s occurred when southern Democratic senators attempted, unsuccessfully, to block the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by making a filibuster that lasted for 75 hours, which included a 14 hour and 13 minute address by Democrat Senator Robert Byrd. The filibuster ended when the Senate invoked cloture for only the second time since 1927.

    November 21, 2013 12:54 pm at 12:54 pm |
  19. Dennis

    Good. Finally. I wanted this back when the shoe WAS on the other foot.

    November 21, 2013 12:54 pm at 12:54 pm |
  20. jayh

    Taste of their own medicine. But this still doesn't make it right.

    November 21, 2013 12:54 pm at 12:54 pm |
  21. Hamlet

    They will love this until they are minority then they will blame the GOP for it.

    The Sheeple that follow them will complain loudly.

    November 21, 2013 12:54 pm at 12:54 pm |
  22. rufus

    Typical "end justifies the means" nonsense from liberals.

    November 21, 2013 12:54 pm at 12:54 pm |
  23. jay58b

    good, now when the Republicans take back the Senate next year they can repeal obamacare with a simple 51 vote majority

    November 21, 2013 12:54 pm at 12:54 pm |
  24. Richard

    This will come back to bite them, rightly so, when the republicans take control of the senate in the upcoming elections.

    November 21, 2013 12:54 pm at 12:54 pm |
  25. Gwen

    Harry Reid should apply the "nuclear option".
    The confirmation of D..C Court of Appeals judicial nominees is way too important to allow the GOP's pattern of filibustering to continue. The GOP appears to have no interest in working out a solution to the selections. This is the second term for Obama and an opportunity for him to make nominations for the high court in the near future with his candidates from the D.C. Court of Appeals. But, the Democrats will also have to make sure they don't lose any seats in the Senate in the next election cycle.

    November 21, 2013 12:54 pm at 12:54 pm |
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