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. Gary

    This is why term limits should be mandated which includes getting rid of the staffers who live on the backs of the working Americans. The Dem's will scream bloody murder when they lose control of the senate and accuse the GOP of all kind of things.
    Time to reduce the federal governments power grab and send the power and money back to the states. Get rid of the money and power and they will get along. Our founding fathers never want government to be a career.

    November 21, 2013 01:44 pm at 1:44 pm |
  2. Tekmon

    With the Dem performance at this point it will backfire badly for them after the next elections.

    November 21, 2013 01:44 pm at 1:44 pm |
  3. Searcher

    Why ALL of the holds on low level judges and exec employees? It's just the TEA-GOP being the PARTY OF NO. They have brought this upon themselves...

    November 21, 2013 01:44 pm at 1:44 pm |
  4. sportsdrenched

    If you think about the original form of Government, a Republican Democracy, what was the fillabuster doign there in the first place? Have an up or down vote and move on. Don't like the results? Win more elections. And, Am I the only one who remembers during the Government Shutdown debate that the GOP changed the procedure to benefit IT'S side in the House?

    November 21, 2013 01:44 pm at 1:44 pm |
  5. Bev

    None of this would have ever happened and the country would not be where it is now if the Republicans/TeaBag
    gers accepted the fact that President Obama won the election TWICE. This is what the American people wanted and voted for. I am sick of House and Senate obstructing everything. It is high time something like his happened. Of course
    now this will totally put the Tea Party run House totally over the edge and the blame game will continue. If the shoe
    was on the other foot it would be a differernt picture! What we are experiencing now is the result of Mitch McConnell and his crew's meeting after the first election....vowing to object and put down Obama and whatever he wants to accomplish. Besides being afraid to say what is really behind it...the fact that he is African American. Get over yourselfves and do you jobs.
    crew

    November 21, 2013 01:44 pm at 1:44 pm |
  6. Robert

    Just remember you liberal swine, watch your back when you go home.

    November 21, 2013 01:44 pm at 1:44 pm |
  7. Rooster

    The Republic is dead. Long live the Republic.

    November 21, 2013 01:44 pm at 1:44 pm |
  8. Anonymous

    Thank God!
    For six year the GOP has tried to overturn (coup) the last two presidential elections, by shutting down the US Government, not appointing judges to the bench and endless congressional investigations on any and everything that the President has done. And daily votes to takeaway healthcare for millions of Americans. Thank God we still have a true patriotic party the democrats, which still believes in the United States of America!

    November 21, 2013 01:45 pm at 1:45 pm |
  9. Amber

    This will be great in 2014 when Republicans take the senate due to the incessant cesspool lying of the Democrat party! Now, if we can only survive until then....

    November 21, 2013 01:45 pm at 1:45 pm |
  10. CATTRANS

    Look Reid its just as much a problem as any republican.. Any of you Dems think not just Google.. "Minerals Mined on Federal Land Spared Taxes, Aided by Senator Reid".. He made sure Mines in his own state are spared of these taxes and he has a vested interest in.. You think Reid is about environmental issues? really his dad was a miner and they ripped up Nevada.. Don't hear this in the press unless you dig for it !

    November 21, 2013 01:45 pm at 1:45 pm |
  11. Anonymous

    I am more comfortable with a vote, by the majority, against my particular position than I am with ONE senator's ability to completely block or put a hold on any legislation. In my thinking that is more akin to democracy whereby majority rules. As opposed to dictatorship where one person tells everyone else what to do. If my position does not prevail, I swallow it and move on and get energized toward electing people who are in favor of my position. Isn't that the way it's supposed to work?

    November 21, 2013 01:45 pm at 1:45 pm |
  12. chuck

    @ David – And the Democrats abused their power and come 2014 they will have their power taken away.

    November 21, 2013 01:45 pm at 1:45 pm |
  13. sly

    American's are sick of negative obstructionalism by the Party of No.

    There isn't a blogger on here who can name a SINGLE thing the Republicans have passed in 8 years. NOTHING!

    Meanwhile, our budget deficit has dropped 40% (FORTY) since last year, and health care costs are at their lowest in 50 years!

    America is Progressing!

    November 21, 2013 01:45 pm at 1:45 pm |
  14. Andrew

    Good now maybe they can do some work and stop arguing back and forth. Like it or not at least the bottleneck is gone. Maybe they can use the time and deliberate on some real bills for a change instead of voting on nomination after nomination because one party keeps playing foul. I dont know about the Senate but simple majority votes usually wins in the rest of the world. They can rewrite the senate rules every year anyway so I wonder what exactly these politicians are lamenting.

    November 21, 2013 01:45 pm at 1:45 pm |
  15. Danny in CA

    Thank you, Harry and the majority. This Rule change offers hope that Congress will move forward. If the Republicans don't want to negotiate or govern with common sense, then so be it. We'll move forward without them. The simple-majority is great news for America and democracy.

    November 21, 2013 01:45 pm at 1:45 pm |
  16. GrandPaTx

    The fundamental transformation of America into a socialist nation is a slow creep, but it is happening right before our eyes.

    November 21, 2013 01:45 pm at 1:45 pm |
  17. Phillip S

    The filibuster was a way to even the playing field. It's a way for the minority to block something they really don't like. Washington isn't supposed to be a highway. Changes are supposed to take time, to make sure the entire country is represented. This just makes it so only the 51% in power have any say... Very sad.

    I voted for Obama the first time around, but Democrats have completely lost me the last few years. 3rd party for the rest of my life now.

    November 21, 2013 01:45 pm at 1:45 pm |
  18. Denise

    Finally! And about time. Now maybe we can get something done. The Republicans have used the filibuster too often and forced this change. They have only themselves to blame. Lets get to work.

    November 21, 2013 01:45 pm at 1:45 pm |
  19. Greg

    Sen. Hillary Clinton (D – NY) 5/23/05

    “So this president has come to the majority in the Senate and basically said, ‘Change the rules. Do it the way I want it done.’ And I guess there just weren’t many voices on the other side of the aisle that after the way previous generations of Senators have acted and said, ‘Mr. President, we’re with you. We support you, but that’s a bridge too far. We can’t go there. You have to restrain yourself, Mr. President”

    “….You’ve got majority rule and then you’ve got the Senate over here, where people can slow things down—where they can debate—where they have something called the filibuster. You know, it seems like it’s a little less than efficient. Well, that’s right. It is…and deliberately designed to be so.”

    November 21, 2013 01:45 pm at 1:45 pm |
  20. Sean

    When the Republicans are in the majority, no doubt the Democrats will whine about it.

    about a year from now...

    November 21, 2013 01:46 pm at 1:46 pm |
  21. BeverlyNC

    FINALLY. After Republicans have played games with the "super majority of 60 votes" for every single piece of legislation for 6 years, we now have a truly democratic process of 51 votes is a majority and the legislation can be debated and passed.
    Republican Senate Leader broke all Senate historical records since our Senate was created by using the filibuster 433 times to stop ALL legislation from even being able to be debated much less voted upon. Republicans stopped all bills for jobs, infrastructure, economic recovery, and even veterans aid. They have blocked every single judicial nomination leaving thousands of judicial posts unfilled all over the nation.
    The Republican goal was to destroy President Obama with nothing getting done. They did not hurt President Obama – they have betrayed and hurt We the People.
    Finally, real work for the People can get done! A great day for the democracy intended for our governing bodies.

    November 21, 2013 01:46 pm at 1:46 pm |
  22. GIJOE

    What goes around, comes around. So when the democrats lose the senate in 2014, then the shoe will be on the other foot and the dems won't be able to stop the Republicans, and if the R's retake the presidency in 2016, then they can completely reverse all the legislation passed by the democrats under Obapma and Pelosi and reid's reign of terror and the idiot liberals won't be able to stop it. a pox on senate democrats ! Remember this in 2014 and vote for NO democrats!!!!!!!!!!

    November 21, 2013 01:46 pm at 1:46 pm |
  23. Robert Schoales

    It's about time Harry grew a set. Stupid rule to begin with.

    November 21, 2013 01:46 pm at 1:46 pm |
  24. David

    Dear Congress (and this is for the idiots of both parties), GROW UP and stop acting like spoiled five year olds who don't get their way!!!!!!!!

    November 21, 2013 01:46 pm at 1:46 pm |
  25. jgrueger

    Obamacare #2. The Democrats should be ashamed. I am a registered democrat, but NO MORE!!!!

    November 21, 2013 01:46 pm at 1:46 pm |
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