November 21st, 2013
09:17 AM ET
9 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. Matthew

    about time

    November 21, 2013 01:39 pm at 1:39 pm |
  2. Mike S. New Orleans

    But what will Republicans do if they can't block nominees and vote no on things?

    November 21, 2013 01:39 pm at 1:39 pm |
  3. calllyouonit

    It is about time!! I think it is quite appropriate to stop the obstructionism. Harry Reid I applaud your leadership on this issue.

    November 21, 2013 01:39 pm at 1:39 pm |
  4. Matt

    Shocking that the Dems were opposed to using this in 2005 when they were the minority

    November 21, 2013 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |
  5. stephennowlin

    The American people put a Democratic majority into the Senate and want the business of governance to proceed accordingly. The same will be true when the Republicans are the majority. Let's go, either way, with the will of the people instead of a rule that artificially makes it difficult to do so. What good is such a rule anyway if its outcome, or misuse by either party, grinds governance to a halt as we have seen with this Congress?

    November 21, 2013 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |
  6. california99

    Love it!!!! Looooooove it! Its about time the Democrats got their act together! The Gop/Republicans are finally getting their Come Uppings !!!!

    November 21, 2013 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |
  7. Jeff

    "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."

    The problem Jim.. is this and the past few congresses are so far apart that our government will never work until we get people on both sides willing to work together. There is no willingness on either side to do this because 90% of the elected officials are so far right or far left. The President blames the Republicans on ACA being not fixed, but if they would have worked together in the beginning it wouldnt be in such a bad spot as it is now. Both sides have good ideas for the country and both sides have horrible ideas. We need them to start working together to bring out both sides good ideas.

    November 21, 2013 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |
  8. bill

    It is a sad day in America when we have to resort to these types of measures just to ensure that the neo-radical extremist GOP party no longer hijacks our Country and holds America hostage. The Republicans have advocated all along that America's failures are their successes. Pretty much tells you all you need to know about the terrorist GOP when a successful America is bad business for the GOP.

    November 21, 2013 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |
  9. JSmith

    I hate our government. Their not for the people anymore, but for themselves. Both sides, you suck.

    November 21, 2013 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |
  10. Josh in Tampa

    The sad fact is, government was set up to be slow….painfully slow. Bills are hard to pass for a reason. We are not a mob (aka majority rule) nation. The individual’s rights are to be protected from the mob (majority).
    This rule change effectively tramples right rights of the individual and 200+ years of precedent.
    Forgive them, founders, for they know not what they have done.

    November 21, 2013 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |
  11. liberals love nukes now?

    What idiot would even want to ruin their reputation working for the federal govt these days.

    November 21, 2013 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |
  12. facistamerica

    We knew it would come to this..you can't negotiate with negative hard line radicals bent on destroying anything the administration is trying accomplish...even if they've supported the policies in the past...they still stand in the way. The GOP is in complete disarray due to right wing radicals....good luck with that one GOP....better you than us..

    November 21, 2013 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |
  13. Martin

    Just remember, power is an interesting thing....what comes around, goes around. Always nice to be cool in the control position....but, don't cry wolf when the tables turn.

    How about stopping all the inside fighting and positioning and management the country! Personally, by now a lot of people would have been fired if they worked in the public sector.

    November 21, 2013 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |
  14. Greg

    Sen. Barack Obama (D – ILL) 4/25/05

    “He hasn’t gotten his way. And that is now prompting a change in the Senate rules that really, I think, would change the character of the Senate forever.”

    November 21, 2013 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |
  15. billmelater1

    I will bet the Dem's will pay big time in the 2014 election and if that happens they will have to live with a republican controlled senate. I can't wait to see what the American people say about this.

    November 21, 2013 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |
  16. Seth

    Mad props for having the balls to put the obstructionists in their place!!!

    November 21, 2013 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |
  17. ljabarr

    "It is another partisan political maneuver to permit the Democratic majority to do whatever it wants to do....." Just like the GOP does whatever they want to do in the House.

    November 21, 2013 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  18. Dan Finn

    @About Time!
    Watch what you wish for. For 237 years we have followed this model to quickly come in and change it may comeback and bite in the @$$. If the Republicans ever get control of the Senate again you may not be whistling the same tune.

    November 21, 2013 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  19. Mike from CO

    MY GOD! How dare the Majority think they should pass things, supported by the majority, by majority rules! THE AUDACITY!

    Advise and consent, that is the role of the Senate in approving appointments – not stall and prevent the executive branch from functioning properly.

    November 21, 2013 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  20. Ann Terhune

    Finally some sanity. The idea that one senator can hold up a nomination was always absurd. It is time to get the government working again

    November 21, 2013 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  21. Merlin

    "Many Republicans argued Democrats were just trying to manufacture a crisis in order to create a distraction from the Obamacare rollout debacle."

    Oh my. Oh my oh my oh my.

    The irony. The irony is killing me. The GOP literally just manufactured the debt ceiling crisis and now this. Oh man I love it.

    November 21, 2013 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  22. Greg

    Sen. Joseph Biden (D – DE) 5/23/05

    “This nuclear option is ultimately an example of the arrogance of power. It is a fundamental power grab.”

    November 21, 2013 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  23. Jon

    For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really ashamed of my country because it feels like all hope is lost.

    November 21, 2013 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  24. Steven Gold

    I don't care what the topic is or what parties are or are not involved.
    Filibusters in general should be done away with.

    November 21, 2013 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  25. ChrisM

    This is the way our Founding Fathers Wanted it you dumb Republicans. You have a problem with that

    November 21, 2013 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
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