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. Ken

    Senators, We The People should line-up each and every one of you in front of a firing squad! You are all disgraceful, and [you] grow further beyond disgraceful with each day that passes. The American people are LOSERS until you all go away! Do us a favor!

    November 21, 2013 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  2. Wallaceboy

    Obama and HR are moving us to a one party system. No checks and balances. Obamacare is the most important piece of legislation ever passed with no votes from the opposing party. Obama is happy to have a one party system supporting his agenda. He and his media have done all they can to undermine and discredit the GOP. Even if you happen to be a strong Dem., is the one party approach really what you want. Also note that this rule can work for the Republicans should they gain control of the Senate in the next go round. Just watch the outrage when they Democrat minority get thrown under the bus with these rules should they lose to the R's next time. Bad call by Harry for the American system.

    November 21, 2013 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  3. Bob Head

    The democrats just sealed their fate in the 2014 congressional elections.

    November 21, 2013 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  4. Steve

    Shame this had to be done. Hopefully the electorate will remember the chicanery of the current Republican buffoons at election time and establish a better majority.

    November 21, 2013 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  5. Dave in Houston

    The sword swings both ways. Reid is an idi0t

    November 21, 2013 01:13 pm at 1:13 pm |
  6. Leelanau

    Dems can always dish it out but can never take it. Just like the spoiled children that they behave like....

    November 21, 2013 01:13 pm at 1:13 pm |
  7. David

    It won't bite them till 2023.

    November 21, 2013 01:13 pm at 1:13 pm |
  8. LWJR

    anything to get Obamacare out of the headlines

    November 21, 2013 01:13 pm at 1:13 pm |
  9. Mark Bulmer

    Step 1: Remove the comparison of breaking a filibuster to an atomic bomb.
    Step 2: Increase tax on the top 1% by a reasonable amount (in percentage terms). Gun control. War on drugs (too many people in prison). Long-term investments that have bi-partisan support.

    November 21, 2013 01:13 pm at 1:13 pm |
  10. Antronman

    Wow. I've always known that democrats will never do something that is of real benefit. At best they will make it look like they are benefiting people. But a 'nuclear' option? This is just over the top. I hope every democrat supporter realizes just how terrible those guys are. I mean, do they want to start another cold war?

    November 21, 2013 01:13 pm at 1:13 pm |
  11. Ruby

    Democrats always have different rules for themselves.

    Most off Obama's nominees are incompetents like Sebelius.

    November 21, 2013 01:14 pm at 1:14 pm |
  12. RDW

    About time! All the repugnants ever do is say no. They don't want to legislate and no other President in history has had his nominations blocked like this. About time the dems grew a pair!

    November 21, 2013 01:14 pm at 1:14 pm |
  13. j0eschm0e

    seems odd how often we hear of replaceing judges these days. why are they constantly stepping down? probably because those who are stepping down are not aligned with obama and his cronies and forced to leave.

    November 21, 2013 01:14 pm at 1:14 pm |
  14. hgflyer

    Wow...I though it was possible that the Republicans would win back the Senate in 2014...this just sealed the deal.

    November 21, 2013 01:14 pm at 1:14 pm |
  15. bobintexas

    so glad this has been done,long overdue,let the 'repugs'deal with it.about time those sorry right wingers are finally put in their place

    November 21, 2013 01:14 pm at 1:14 pm |
  16. dontbow

    Talk about abuse of power. The dums are full of it with this senate and presidency. This is nothing more than a political power grab that Americans will suffer from with future tactics to get even worse.

    November 21, 2013 01:14 pm at 1:14 pm |
  17. nwg6011

    If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times: It's NU-Q-LAR!

    November 21, 2013 01:14 pm at 1:14 pm |
  18. Gman

    Except that the dems will still be the majority in 2014

    November 21, 2013 01:14 pm at 1:14 pm |
  19. faithfulliberal

    Let's get this appointments confirmed to the courts, and get back to business now that the professional obstructionists have been neutered. My only complaint is that it was clear this needed to be done 4 years ago, when the obstructionists started their attempt to kill Obama's presidency.

    Let's get back to work. Thankfully, now we can.

    November 21, 2013 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  20. RDW

    About time! All the republicans ever do is say no. They don't want to legislate and no other President in history has had his nominations blocked like this. About time the dems grew a pair!

    November 21, 2013 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  21. Mobi

    LOL Cant win by following the rules? change them.. LOL Lame!

    November 21, 2013 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  22. Mammo

    Yikes....There goes moderation......Thanks Cruz.....Thanks Paul.....Put this in your tea pots.....

    November 21, 2013 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  23. what's good for the goose

    Great, hopefully Reid and Democrats will also support this when they are no longer the majority in the Senate

    November 21, 2013 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  24. shorething

    So when you are frustrated its ok to drop bombs. Because bombs make everything better

    November 21, 2013 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  25. Meki60

    Reid is a sickest of the sick

    November 21, 2013 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
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