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. Ellen

    This is HORRIBLE. It completely negates attempts at compromise, and it is not forward-thinking, as the Democrats may not always be the party in the majority.

    November 21, 2013 02:06 pm at 2:06 pm |
  2. Zeke

    What goes around comes around. In the not too distant future, the Republicans will have control of the Senate and can use this option to bury the Democrats. Obamacare is dead!

    November 21, 2013 02:07 pm at 2:07 pm |
  3. Pearlie Cope

    What come around goes around.I'm not crying and don't want to hear anybody when the shoes on the other foot.

    November 21, 2013 02:07 pm at 2:07 pm |
  4. bilk7

    I think's funny that people are saying to wait until the GOP has control of the Senate and Reid and the Dems will be complaining. Let them! I don't want miniority Dems obstructing the Senate's duties anymore than I want the GOP to obstruct it. If these guys had served the people and not their politcal agendas and hatred of the President, this wouldn't have been necessary.

    November 21, 2013 02:07 pm at 2:07 pm |
  5. Mike in SJ

    Almost half of all nominees (82 of 168) EVER filibustered in U.S. history were Obama administration nominees. Obstructionism by the Republicans to the max! Dems had no choice...

    November 21, 2013 02:07 pm at 2:07 pm |
  6. Dennis in Los Angeles

    What a horrible little man.

    November 21, 2013 02:07 pm at 2:07 pm |
  7. Moon mars

    It outrageous move by Harry Reid. Filibuster tool helped the launch of presidential Campaign of Sen. Paul and Sen. Cruz. Now the other Senators don't have the option.

    November 21, 2013 02:07 pm at 2:07 pm |
  8. onepercenter

    Just remember...what goes around, comes around.

    November 21, 2013 02:07 pm at 2:07 pm |
  9. notfooledagain

    What goes around comes around, I can hardly wait.

    November 21, 2013 02:07 pm at 2:07 pm |
  10. bryan

    dosent seem very bright for a party who is about to become a minority

    November 21, 2013 02:07 pm at 2:07 pm |
  11. doregroj

    Reminder to Democrats (and Republicans).. what comes around goes around. Enjoy our moment for it shall soon pass.

    November 21, 2013 02:07 pm at 2:07 pm |
  12. alyosha.romanov

    He runs the Senate like a third world dictator I agree with Don I will love to see how he likes eating crow. The people are not happy with his party and they will pay for this!

    November 21, 2013 02:07 pm at 2:07 pm |
  13. jed clampett

    With the new idiots of the tea party controlling the GOP, Cruz & Paul, nothing is getting done. I like to call them the CruziPal.

    November 21, 2013 02:07 pm at 2:07 pm |
  14. Buchanan

    This will come back to haunt Dingy Harry after the GOP takes the Senate

    November 21, 2013 02:07 pm at 2:07 pm |
  15. janelle

    Evidently Mr. Reid does not understand what his job as a Senator is. The job of Senators is to represent and protect the interests of the State from which they are elected. It is not the job of Senators to do whatever they can to advance the Federal Gov't, but do whatever they can that is in the best interests of their State. One of those duties is to advise and consent the President. They are to look to the best interest of their State when they advise and consent the President, not just give the President a blank check to screw over the people of their State. I truly hope Nevadans remember all the sleazy shenanigans this moron has used to screw them over next time he's up for re-election!!!!

    November 21, 2013 02:08 pm at 2:08 pm |
  16. Rob W

    I'm sure when the Republicans are in the majority, their reverence for "tradition" will obligate them to reverse this rules change.

    November 21, 2013 02:08 pm at 2:08 pm |
  17. pablo

    The frightening thing for me is that people such as yourself vote. Hatred and divisiveness will only send this democracy to the bottom faster than the course it is already on.

    November 21, 2013 02:08 pm at 2:08 pm |
  18. Harsh Realities

    What goes around, comes around. If and when the Republicans take control of the WH, Senate and House then the republicans can use the "Nuclear Option" against the Dems.

    November 21, 2013 02:08 pm at 2:08 pm |
  19. iowajoe56

    @Davein Jersey. You are really good with hyperbole but really short on reason. While more liberal dems thought the ACA should have been medicare for all, it can be better overall than what was passing as a health care insurance program. Perhaps with simple majority rules in Congress and a democratically lead house in 2014 we can finally see common sense return to D.C.

    November 21, 2013 02:08 pm at 2:08 pm |
  20. rker321

    Finally, the Democrats are showing some balls, good for them. It was about time, they should have done this a long time ago.

    November 21, 2013 02:09 pm at 2:09 pm |
  21. 4sanity

    Elections have consequences. Republicans lost the Executive branch in 2012. The President has the right and duty to establish his administration to manage the government – something Republican anarchists seem to have forgotten.

    Instead we've had 5 years of Republican obstructionism on the most mundane of issues – administration appointees that carry out the normal functions of government. And that includes appointment of qualified judges to fill vacancies.

    And the next time someone throws around a claim of "court packing" they might like to remember that these circuits have had chronic vacancies for years not because of a lack of qualified nominees but pure and simple partisan politics. And in that regard, past Republican Presidents routinely installed "activist" conservative ideologues.

    And it is the height of hypocrisy to actively block the government from functioning efficiently, and then turn around and say: "Look government doesn't function." Quickest way to makes the United States of America a 2nd rate country.

    November 21, 2013 02:09 pm at 2:09 pm |
  22. NickAnast

    McConnell was laughing at Reid and the Democrats after making a deal in January that preserved the filibuster rules in exchange for not filibustering lower-tiered judicial and executive branch nominees. The GOP reneged on that agreement in July and outdid themselves last week when they filibustered three nominees for the DC Appeals Court simply because they do not want President Obama to fill those vacancies (and admitted as much). They got what they deserved.

    In the 12 years that Dems were in the minority from 1995 through 2006, they never launched more than 82 filibusters in one session of Congress. In the six years (2001-2006) that they were in the minority during the Bush presidency, they launched 201 filibusters. Since returning to the minority in 2007, the GOP has launched no fewer than 115 filibusters in each session of Congress (they are on pace for more than 110 in the current session), and they launched more than 250 filibusters in Obama's first term alone.

    Contrast that with this fact: from 1917 through 1970, there were a grand total of 58 filibusters.

    November 21, 2013 02:09 pm at 2:09 pm |
  23. ScottC

    Thanks, Harry. This is going to cost you dearly. Such a fool. Reap what you sew you blathering buffoon.

    November 21, 2013 02:09 pm at 2:09 pm |
  24. Matt

    "In other words they believe that one set of rules should apply to them and another set to everybody else."

    Pot meet kettle.

    November 21, 2013 02:09 pm at 2:09 pm |
  25. Melissa

    Good. It's about time.

    November 21, 2013 02:10 pm at 2:10 pm |
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