November 21st, 2013
09:17 AM ET
5 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 (2,692 Responses)
  1. RF

    It's about time! unfortunately the do nothing Republicans are responsible for this. their insistence to block nominations so that they can reinforce their witch hunt strategy is now a goner!

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

    It's about time. Obstructionists must go!

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

    About time. Stop the GOP now, and then get rid of them completely in 2014.

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

    "Nuclear option"? Seriously? That's the nomenclature being used for a potential change in Senate rules?

    Not to discount the importance of the filibuster or this particular story, but this is a prime example of what is wrong with news today and the national discourse in general – everything is blown out of proportion by a hyperbole factor of 10 in an attempt to garner more attention. Everything is Hitler this, racist that, nuclear this, socialist, communist, painted black or white.

    God forbid we ever have to talk about actual "nuclear options" in context of bombs.

    November 21, 2013 01:21 pm at 1:21 pm |
  5. A True Conservative

    Harry – you have hit rock bottom – you can stop digging

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

    How interesting that Reid said that one of his actions was for the good of the nation. Has that every been a concern of his? Seriously? I don't care which party is in power, I don't like government taking away the defenses of the little guy, the individual, the minority. I know that is the supreme goal of all bureaucracies – but that doesn't mean I like it. Reid's whole career has been focused on making people dependent on inefficient, unaccountable and non-efficacious bureaucracies. What a bad man.

    November 21, 2013 01:21 pm at 1:21 pm |
  7. tom l

    Wowzer. Just another way to pit one American against another American and say "my team is better than yours!" So pathetic. Anyone who thinks this is good is just a sucker. So naïve and pathetic.

    November 21, 2013 01:22 pm at 1:22 pm |
  8. Rich T

    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 01:22 pm at 1:22 pm |
  9. scieng1

    I am sure that Reid won't mind when the GOP takes control of the Senate and starts making the rules without listening to Dem concerns and working to actually benefit all Americans instead of their major donors only. This will make Washington an even nastier place because the ruling party will now RULE instead of govern by consensus.

    November 21, 2013 01:22 pm at 1:22 pm |
  10. NoMoreDems

    I thought they already used the Nuclear Option - called OBAMACARE.

    November 21, 2013 01:22 pm at 1:22 pm |
  11. Nodack

    Block everything. Say no to everything. Turn everything into a scandal. Don't actually do anything.

    November 21, 2013 01:22 pm at 1:22 pm |
  12. SDCinNS

    Dangerous precedent. I'm sure the next time the Republicans control the Senate – the Democrats will want this rule revoked as a huge abuse of power.

    November 21, 2013 01:22 pm at 1:22 pm |
  13. visitor

    About time

    November 21, 2013 01:22 pm at 1:22 pm |
  14. Lucas

    The democrats will do ANYTHING to get their way. I wonder if they realize how bad this makes them look, compounded by the failure of Obamacare, of course.

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

    Sick of obstructionism on both sides. So ultimately, happy this passed. But if the Dems ever lose power they're gonna wish they hadn't hit the red button.

    November 21, 2013 01:22 pm at 1:22 pm |
  16. wesmorgan1

    Oh, and one more point – it's instructive to note that the rate of filibusters and cloture votes absolutely SKYROCKETED when President Obama took office. The GOP has made cloture/filibuster the norm, where it had never before been typical practice.

    November 21, 2013 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  17. Reggie53

    I am totally fed up of that man. Harry Reid should be gone...he is a total failure....he does not know who to be bi-partisan. People like him should not be in politics...... Be gone Reid.........time to be put to pasture!!!!!!!!!!!!

    November 21, 2013 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  18. Molon Labe

    Leave it to the Democrats to change the rules to suit their needs.

    November 21, 2013 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  19. Wade Tritschler

    Well, abuse the filibuster long enough and this is what happens. Reps in the senate have been using it an absolutely absurd amount, before even Obama got elected, so I'm not surprised.

    November 21, 2013 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  20. LibsRLiars

    Just remember libs, your hero as recently as 2005 is on record for supporting the filibuster on judicial nominees. Reid has set a bad precedent. You can jump up and down right now and feel all giddy, but you will not hold the presidency forever and when you don't, this will come back to haunt you bad. Real bad.

    November 21, 2013 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  21. Chris

    Nice. Change the rules when they no longer suit you. That's taking one from Obama's playbook.

    November 21, 2013 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  22. American Worker

    Since President Obama doesn't have autonomy to dictate, Harry Reid is make changes to assure that he can.

    November 21, 2013 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  23. mayhem4u

    If you don't like the results of the game; change the rules!!! It'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 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  24. Name

    I hope this winds up screwing the democrats over in the future

    November 21, 2013 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  25. Evervigilant

    So the same democrats who passed the filibuster rule in the first place now remove it when it doesn't suit their agenda. They thought it was a good idea when it benefited them.

    November 21, 2013 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
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