November 21st, 2013
09:17 AM ET
10 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. John Keimig

    Like so many things in life, the fine art the Filibuster is knowing how to use it and also when not to. Using it to block a presidential nominee who has popular support within the Senate, for purely political reasons, is not appropriate within the Senate's advise-and-consent responsibility.
    Presidents, having won a national election, have the right to nominate appointees of their political preference, within the confines of integrity and qualification to do the job. Nominees should be evaluated on these qualities, with politics brought in only when the person's views are so extreme as to render them inappropriate for the position - for example one who believes the Federal Reserve Bank should be dismantled should never be nominated to be its chairman.
    Democrats should limit the filibuster in this way and also accept that limitation when it comes their time to be in the minority.

    November 21, 2013 09:58 am at 9:58 am |
  2. Jerry

    For Harry, what else is new?! I hope after he gets nuclear, he just flies off into space never to be seen again.

    Just like his "handler" (Obama), what a HYPOCRITE/LIAR!!!

    November 21, 2013 09:58 am at 9:58 am |
  3. Abbey

    Pull the trigger Harry, and you will find yourself along with the Democrats in the unemployment line for good.

    November 21, 2013 09:59 am at 9:59 am |
  4. Harry101

    Harry better be careful and understand what goes around can and will come back around. I know he wants to marginalize the GOP's ability now but he needs to think about the possibility of the GOP once again holding a majority in the senate. Marginalizing the GOP now will give that pary the ability to do the same to the Democrat's later maybe.

    November 21, 2013 09:59 am at 9:59 am |
  5. Sid

    I'm not GOP fan (to put it kindly) but the hypocrisy would be funny if it wasn't guaranteed to escalate! he better make sure he's prepared for the post-2014 consequences if he turns this key...

    November 21, 2013 09:59 am at 9:59 am |
  6. Abbey

    Harry did you really think that after stonewalling the American public for 5 years on countless jobs bills if would be all forgotten?

    November 21, 2013 10:00 am at 10:00 am |
  7. Dave

    Stop apologizing for Republicans!! The filibuster is not sacrosanct unless they do a real one. obstruction is not what the filibuster was intended for.

    November 21, 2013 10:00 am at 10:00 am |
  8. conoclast

    Gee, what will the republicans do when they - as the minority - can no longer rule the senate?

    Majority Rule is elemental to the democratic process; you remember how democracy works, don't you 'baggers?

    November 21, 2013 10:00 am at 10:00 am |
  9. Patrick

    Harry Reid went nuclear when the Democrats took the majority in the Senate. America has been suffering from the fallout ever since.

    November 21, 2013 10:00 am at 10:00 am |
  10. olepi

    Th3e GOP wants the Senate to be broken, they don't believe in the American government.

    November 21, 2013 10:01 am at 10:01 am |
  11. Oakspar77777

    If 2014 swings 6 seats, then the Dems will rue the decision to weaken the minority party.

    Even if those chairs don't swing until 2016, 2018, or beyond, someday they will inevitably be looking at a government in which they have no voice (something the filibuster rule has made more difficult).

    A deliberative body like the Senate should have a high hurdle to pass legislation – lowing that limit does not fix partisan DC, but only inflames it.

    November 21, 2013 10:02 am at 10:02 am |
  12. Doom Shepherd

    It's ALWAYS a bad idea to vote yourself power that you wouldn't want the "enemy" party to be able to use against you someday. It's a shame no one in Congress ever seems to understand this – if they hadn't been doing that for the lat 20 years or so, the last couple of years would have passed a lot more quietly. A pox on both your houses!

    November 21, 2013 10:03 am at 10:03 am |
  13. Concerned Observer

    The President received 51% of the popular vote in 2012. We are a nation divided. Though extremely difficult, our states-men and -women are charged with selecting appointees that are good for the nation, not just one party or ideology. What is called for in a nation divided is for the selection of potential appointees that are respected by members of both parties, not an erosion of legislative rules developed out of a respect for the democratic process.

    It will be a sad day for our experiment in democracy if what is proposed in this article comes to pass.

    November 21, 2013 10:04 am at 10:04 am |
  14. tet1953

    It is long overdue. The filibuster is abused too often. There was a time when it was used perhaps once a decade. Nowadays nothing gets through the Senate without cloture.

    November 21, 2013 10:04 am at 10:04 am |
  15. Swamprat

    Instead of going nuclear, he just needs to go away!
    Reid is ALWAYS blocking the majority.

    November 21, 2013 10:05 am at 10:05 am |
  16. Carl

    And now its time for the House to do its version of nuclear too. Because Harry and Nancy and Obuma are already radioactive.

    November 21, 2013 10:06 am at 10:06 am |
  17. ironmike

    Hey if you don't like how things are going change the rules, hope they remember this when the Republicans get the majority!

    November 21, 2013 10:06 am at 10:06 am |
  18. Victor Cuadra

    Yes Harry Reid. Why don't you just rewrite the Constitution as you Democrats see fit while you're at it? It's pretty clear Constitutional Law means nothing to you.

    If you don't like it, you'll just change it. Corrupt, through and through. Practically a dictator and personally, I do not like what I am seeing from Washington.

    Let me know when the revolution starts. I'll sign up when the rest of America finally wakes up.

    November 21, 2013 10:07 am at 10:07 am |
  19. Brian

    As long as Congress considers their party's stance the most important factor above all else, nothing will get solved in D.C.

    November 21, 2013 10:08 am at 10:08 am |
  20. Starmar13

    Term limits AND age limits, people...

    November 21, 2013 10:08 am at 10:08 am |
  21. Heywood Jablowme

    "now say things are so broken in Washington that the nuclear option may be the only way to fix it." No it's the way to get what you wnat even if you have to change the rules to get it. This is a long standing rule of the senate and I do not believe it should be changed, even if in the future it benefits Republicans.

    November 21, 2013 10:08 am at 10:08 am |
  22. Ryan

    There is no good reason to have a filibuster rule in the first place, in a representative democracy. Its only function is to subvert the will of the majority, and results in legislative paralysis. Let's remember the Republicans who are going to be in hysterics over this are the same people who were all over Wendy Davis in TX for standing against the abortion ban. What did they do when she filibustered it? Changed the rules and passed it anyway. Just eliminate it altogether and you'll cut away a layer of hypocrisy and maybe some governing will get done.

    November 21, 2013 10:09 am at 10:09 am |
  23. Dave

    Yet another move toward a dictatorship

    November 21, 2013 10:10 am at 10:10 am |
  24. joeybagadoughnuts

    This is what happens when you DO NOT have a 3rd party option folks. Dems are throwing a tantrum because repubs are blocking dem nominees. Repubs are having a tantrum because the ACA is being implemented.

    Both parties are like spoiled little brats and, when they fight, WE THE PEOPLE are the ones who suffer.

    SAY NO TO THE 2 PARTY SYSTEM!!!!

    November 21, 2013 10:10 am at 10:10 am |
  25. Furball

    How about you work to confirm these positions instead of just blocking them -because you can. I am not a fan of the filibuster, and I am not a fan of changing rules to pass your needs. I still think the current set of republicans are doing great harm to this country just to spite the current President. It's not statesman-like to try and derail things just because. It shows lack of maturity, intelligence, compassion, and humility when a person is arguing just because. Our current set of government leaders are nothing more than trolls.

    November 21, 2013 10:11 am at 10:11 am |
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