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. PJ

    Too bad they had to do that; however, given the extreme GOP – there was no choice.

    November 21, 2013 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
  2. Amperr

    I am having a problem understanding why the senate Republicans were blocking three judicial nominations to fill open seats. If there are matters of principal, like not qualified or something, then debate it in the open and vote. But this obstructionism for the sake of not letting Obama have anything is bordering on high crimes and misdemeanors. At the least it is dereliction of duty.

    November 21, 2013 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
  3. lauradet

    It's about time the Democrats grew some balls to end the GOP's BS.

    November 21, 2013 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
  4. Beverly

    It's time to change before the senate becomes obsolete? In my opinion the senate and the house are obsolete. We need to change our government to a body who will act on behalf of the citizens of this great country. Vote for change in 2014 and 2016.

    November 21, 2013 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
  5. Vote_Out_Democrats_In_2014

    There is only one way to deal with Democrats changing a rule that has been in place for 215 years. Vote them out of the Senate in 2014.

    November 21, 2013 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
  6. CPrice

    It’s sad when one party can declare, “Americans are upset, because we are not getting our way”. We are much more upset on what you've done. What have the GOP essentially blocked? Obocare? Nope, passed through Reconciliation. Not enough people could stand by it, let’s change the rules. And again, “We can’t get our left winger nominees in place!” … very clever, change the rules again. If you can’t enough votes for something, chances are, it shouldn’t be there. Conservatives have faced this, with the Presidential votes (ignorance currently lives large), but now the left needs to reap what they’ve sown. “See how us Dems in charge can make a difference?” - NO thanks. Take away the rights to some Americans, all Americans will lose.

    November 21, 2013 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
  7. Hillcrester

    McConnell is full of hot air as usual. The Executive nominees are NOT lifetime appointments, and in using the filibuster even on nominees they thought were fully acceptable they did not set up "extended debate" but interminable delay, preventing a vote no matter how much debate took place. He is a pathological liar, and the Dems did the right thing, finally. If the GOP wants to control appointments, try winning the Presidency.

    November 21, 2013 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
  8. smb70

    I love all the conservatives slamming Reid for doing this and not compromising. 82 of President Obama's nominations have been filibustered. Only 86 presidential nominations, in all of our history, were filibustered before him.
    Many of these nominations were passed unanimously once the GOP allowed the vote to happen. And one of those nominated was a GOP recommendation who the President chose.

    This isn't even mentioning the legislation that the GOP has filibustered without cause.

    And if you honestly think McConnell wouldn't have done this long ago, if the roles had been reversed, then you've got your head firmly up your partisan behind.

    November 21, 2013 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
  9. MJB

    Maybe, just maybe Senator Reid should use a little of the energy he uses to obstruct in Washington and focus a little harder on helping his home State of Nevada that has the highest unemployment rate in the nation, and has the third lowest high school graduation rate!!

    November 21, 2013 01:19 pm at 1:19 pm |
  10. Wigglymump

    Well, not to worry. If/when the Republicans get the Senate, they can change the rules back to the way they were...

    ... ;) ...

    November 21, 2013 01:19 pm at 1:19 pm |
  11. geno marcello

    Harry Reid, I think, has just destroyed the Democratic Party.

    November 21, 2013 01:19 pm at 1:19 pm |
  12. ben

    Democrats use the government to serve themselves. This won't bite them, just the american people.

    November 21, 2013 01:20 pm at 1:20 pm |
  13. rockysfan

    Good! I'm glad and it's about freakin' time. I'm so sick to death of the repubs blocking absolutely everything. These nominiations have been held up long enough! Good God, they even held up promotions for the military. This garbage has to stop and if that is what it took, so be it!

    November 21, 2013 01:20 pm at 1:20 pm |
  14. TM

    I understand the frustration Dems feel with the mindless obstruction coming from the GOP. However, they will regret this move. Eventually political pendulum will swing the other way and the GOP will hold 51+ seats, and I am absolutely sure the very first thing they will do is abolish the filibuster for SCOTUS nominees too, right before voting for the most hyper conservative jurist they can find. Someone who would ban all abortions, provide absolute protection for corporations against any civil lawsuit, and support any attempt to challenge the voting rights of anyone who isn't a caucasian, male, landowner.

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

    Defund this government NOW.

    November 21, 2013 01:20 pm at 1:20 pm |
  16. Aaa comment.

    It is unbelievable!!! Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are the biggest jokes to inhabit the earth

    November 21, 2013 01:20 pm at 1:20 pm |
  17. Anonymous

    3 nominees shot down so something had to be done. Dems won't always have majority to I am ok with it.

    November 21, 2013 01:20 pm at 1:20 pm |
  18. mayhem4u

    If you don't like the game results, change the rules!! That's kind of like: If you don't play my way, I'll take my ball and go home!!

    OMG.....the children are fighting again!!!

    November 21, 2013 01:20 pm at 1:20 pm |
  19. Robin Jones

    Reid has let another partisan monster out of the closet. Some day, sooner or later, this beast will return to haunt the Democratic Party.

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

    So I pose the question: which will it come to – a civil war or a revolution? Polarization and rule-rigging can only go so far before somebody throws something at someone else. . .

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

    Well "W" did quite a few 'questionable' things while in office, which is why we have such a mess now. When you have a large segment of the population that feels they've been robbed of their rights they're going to strike back sooner or later.
    As for 2014, I wouldn't count my chickens before they hatch. Unless Republicans come up with someone better than their last two dipchits the only change is going to be from Barack to Hillary. Because you're going to need Democrats to win and so far I haven't seen any that are ready to switch parties.
    Republicans had 8 years to screw this country up and they did one jam up job. It may take a decade or two to get us back on the road to Democracy. That's not even mentioning what they did to Iraq and Afghanistan.

    November 21, 2013 01:20 pm at 1:20 pm |
  22. TSROCKSTAR

    if you can't win change the rules, this is just like my fantasy football league, the people who can't get their way always want the rules changed to just suit them... my god there isn't a bigger bunch of babies in the entire then 536 politicians in Washington DC, GROW UP BOTH SIDES!!

    November 21, 2013 01:21 pm at 1:21 pm |
  23. Ol' Lefty

    About time.

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

    Sen. Reid should smile more. He always seems angry like his medical coverage was just cancelled or something.

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

    I hope they like this option when they are in the minority.

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