November 21st, 2013
09:17 AM ET
12 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. Diedre Green

    Welcome to the dictatorship. Next move ... disaster, followed by marshal law, followed by suspended elections.

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

    The filibuster should be given a proper burial. A mechanism that can be used to remove popular opinion (represented as votes) is one that robs the democratic process of alignment with majority opinion. It basically countermands the purpose of voting.

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

    Perhaps the last true filibuster occurred in 2003, when Sen. Harry Reid began reading from his book "Searchlight" for roughly nine hours. It was an effort to hold up the GOP from approving some judicial nominations made by President George W. Bush.

    November 21, 2013 01:24 pm at 1:24 pm |
  4. Smoke and Mirrors

    Finally, the GOP are useless and should be marginalized.

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

    51 out of 100 is the majority. At least the Dems appear to know basic math.

    November 21, 2013 01:24 pm at 1:24 pm |
  6. About time!

    GOPs have no one but themselves to blame – pick your battles. Americans want the govt to *work*, not be bogged down in endless trivial partisanship. Obama won election by overwhelming majorities, twice – get over it.

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

    Votes for exective & judicial nominees was always ment to be an up or down simple 51 majority vote; this is from our Founding Fathers! So whats the problem???

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

    Makes sense. Why should there be any additional scrutiny before appointing someone to a LIFETIME position?

    November 21, 2013 01:24 pm at 1:24 pm |
  9. Carlo S Chaves

    Based on the premise of Sen. Reid and the democrats, this nuclear option would hunt the democrats when republicans take over. This is tantamount to dictatorship..that since the President is elected, he gets what he wants for nominees. We are a democratic country filibuster is a privilege however, not to be abused when nominee is qualified or resolution is for the general welfare and not for the few. too much politicking. too much flip-flopping.

    November 21, 2013 01:24 pm at 1:24 pm |
  10. Uncle Sam

    Harry just has gas.

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

    When you have s situation where you have a senator like Lindsay Graham sayingthat he will block ALL nominees over totally unrelated issues unless he gets his way and not related to the merits of a nominee at all then this move becomes necessary. Republicans stepped over a line.

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

    Yes!! Check Mate!!!! Now its your move, Republicans!! Karma has come right back to the Republicans!

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

    To see these 1diots in DC destroy the foundation of our once proud country is really disgusting. It pulls deep for me as my family has five generations of military, some of whom have given all. I cant imagine the ignorance, selfishness, and arrogance one must have to make it to the hill. A bunch of lousy human beings they are, its shameful really. I am embarrased for this country and the mockery of so called leadership.

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

    When Children Abuse their privlages they get taken away . The GOP abused the filabuster so they rightfully had it taken away

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

    Wow, look at that mummy in that picture, with one leg in grave. These have the power to determine the fate of a whole nation.

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

    There goes our representative government. Now a simple majority rules over everyone and the rest of the country has to “get to the back of the bus”, a cute comment our president made after his election in 08. What a guy and what a party, so much for democracy for all.

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

    It was about time. Maybe the senate and congress at large can get back to work on some legislation; and the opposition to stop obstructing as a way to slow government down and win ideological extreme concessions.

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

    Why bother voting period?

    November 21, 2013 01:25 pm at 1:25 pm |
  19. Smoke and Mirrors

    Will vote democrat in 2014, GOP are useless garbage.

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

    GOP Sucks
    Let's be honest. If Republicans were in the majority, they would have done this years ago.

    --------------------------------------

    GW Bush was blocked by the democrats and threatened this option, but made the right decision in the end. Democrats have thrown the first punch, and this will be used against them in the future. Very poor decision in the long therm.

    November 21, 2013 01:25 pm at 1:25 pm |
  21. He's Dead Jim

    Thank god. R.I.P. Filibuster. People forget, the filibuster used to be THE nuclear option when it was first created. Then it just became a normal part of every day obstructionism, on both sides. About time we got rid of this useless piece of procedural garbage. A filibuster should be treated like a gun. Only brought out when absolutely necessary. Not waved around willy-nilly every time something happens you don't agree with. I don't want either sides to be "hurt" by this. What I want is for these grown adults to actually learn how to work together. How hard is that? I've seen high school prom committees that communicate more effectively than these people. To lawmakers on both sides, quit the partisan BS and maybe this wouldn't even be an issue.

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

    dem = hypocrisy

    wait till the reps are the majority

    November 21, 2013 01:25 pm at 1:25 pm |
  23. patw2100

    Many thanks to Harry for sitting the GOP up for success in 2015

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

    What comes around goes around. These POS Democrats have 11 months until the tables get turned. Get it in now Reid while you can b/c after Nov. 2014, its over for you. And then in 2016, these Democrats are going to wish to God they had done this.

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

    Yes, but remember, it will go both ways. When republicans are in charge, Dems will have their hands tied too.

    November 21, 2013 01:26 pm at 1:26 pm |
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