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. Data Driven

    @Don Quixote,

    "2014 is coming. :) It will be interesting to see how Mr. Reid feels about this rule change after the election"

    We'll see, won't we, Senor? I imagine he'll feel the same, since Obama will still be President. If the GOP takes back the Senate in 2014, they'll merely do what they've been doing up until today: blocking any and all Obama appointees for no good reason. So, no biggie there - we're used to that.

    And if the GOP loses in 2014? More liberal judges! Now how do you like it?

    November 21, 2013 02:10 pm at 2:10 pm |
  2. Liberty in Exile

    Tyranny by the Democrats. Remember this people Harry Reid wanted to do this and it was approved by the executive branch. This tyranny started under the Democrat Rule of the Senate.

    November 21, 2013 02:10 pm at 2:10 pm |
  3. rker321

    Finally the Democrats showing some "spine" it was about time, the Republicans have played hard ball enough

    November 21, 2013 02:10 pm at 2:10 pm |
  4. Hillary's Ministrokes

    Doesn't really matter at this point in time. Obama's approval rating is in the dumps along with right wing evangelicals and progressive psychos like Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi. If history is any guide there will be a change coming to Washington and the traitorous villians on either side of the aisle will be sent to the gallows for their destructive behavior.

    November 21, 2013 02:11 pm at 2:11 pm |
  5. Mugzee44

    Now can we move along and RUN the Government?

    November 21, 2013 02:11 pm at 2:11 pm |
  6. American Worker

    The end of our Representative Democracy.
    The imposition of the tyranny of the political majority.
    Inclusion has just been stripped.

    November 21, 2013 02:11 pm at 2:11 pm |
  7. rob

    I should sue the democrats. Their name is too close to democracy. Its confusing people.

    November 21, 2013 02:11 pm at 2:11 pm |
  8. tired

    The filibuster is just an excuse for politicians on both sides to not do their job i.e. reach some kind of reasonable consensus. If it was banned entirely, good riddance. I for one am tired of the kind of mess we had with the government shutdown recently.

    November 21, 2013 02:11 pm at 2:11 pm |
  9. David

    I love "Republicans would do it in a heart beat" comments. Newsflash.... Republicans DIDN'T do it when they could have.

    I can only imagine what Reid's reaction would have been if the they would have been denied the filibuster, a tool they publicly acknowledged as an important tool for the minority and used it regularly.

    November 21, 2013 02:11 pm at 2:11 pm |
  10. Mike

    YES! Let's strip away all power we can from the minority group, because they could never become the majority group again right? OH WAIT, whichever majority party in office passes this will regret it later.

    November 21, 2013 02:11 pm at 2:11 pm |
  11. sonny chapman

    Too much democracy is fatal for a Democracy.

    November 21, 2013 02:11 pm at 2:11 pm |
  12. Tiffins

    Not suprised by Harry Palms doing this... Typical Dem tactic, can't win through normal due process so let's just change the rules.

    November 21, 2013 02:11 pm at 2:11 pm |
  13. If I had a hammer... I'd whack you in the morning

    yeah that was the lousy rendition of DR Seuss's green eggs and ham!

    November 21, 2013 02:11 pm at 2:11 pm |
  14. ScottC

    Thank you, Harry. We could not have asked for a more inept and self damaging maneuver. Well done. You have been played like a fiddle. Nw you will reap the rewards.

    November 21, 2013 02:11 pm at 2:11 pm |
  15. SanDiegoWatch

    As an Independent.....I see nothing but Democrats / Liberals destroying this country by taxing us hardworking Americans....Obamacare....attempting to give citizenship to illegal aliens...etc....

    You can be damn sure I'll be voting Conservative when the time comes.....

    November 21, 2013 02:11 pm at 2:11 pm |
  16. bryan

    who wants to bet they change it back after the midterms but before the new majority is sworn in

    November 21, 2013 02:12 pm at 2:12 pm |
  17. NotYoDaddy

    Remember this moment Harry when the GOP controls the Senate and shoves things down YOUR throat.
    (if you are still alive that is)

    November 21, 2013 02:12 pm at 2:12 pm |
  18. Obvious

    Democrats just guaranteed that everyone right of Michael Moore will vote Republican next year.

    November 21, 2013 02:12 pm at 2:12 pm |
  19. Jeff

    From 2005:

    But Democrats contend that the Republicans are essentially breaking the rules to change the rules. "If there were ever an example of an abuse of power, this is it," said Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). "The filibuster is the last check we have against the abuse of power in Washington."

    November 21, 2013 02:12 pm at 2:12 pm |
  20. Hillary

    the same Majority party that passed Obummer Care, What a deal!!!!

    November 21, 2013 02:12 pm at 2:12 pm |
  21. tom l

    It's kinda funny because the dems actually think that people will support something like this when all it does is appease the Sniffits and DMFOs of the country but it actually makes them look small, trite, childish and unwilling to work within the rules that they were given.

    What the Sniffits and DMFOs don't realize is that this is just a move to placate the radicals of their base. They have no clue what the average American thinks. Not to mention that you've got have some pretty big cajones to do something like this when you have the lowest approval ratings you have ever had.

    November 21, 2013 02:12 pm at 2:12 pm |
  22. sean b

    This is what the Republicans get after holding a nation's business hostage for years and years.

    Period.

    November 21, 2013 02:12 pm at 2:12 pm |
  23. afs501

    As a not yet extinct moderate Republican, I say Amen.
    The Senate leadership brought this upon themselves.
    Maybe the far right will stop handing Senate races to the Democrats
    and help to "elect" a Republican majority in the Senate.

    November 21, 2013 02:12 pm at 2:12 pm |
  24. jaxx

    The dems just handed the hammer to the repubs. The repubs will use it after 2014. Anything Obama hopes to get done in the remainder of his presidency, he'd better get done in the next year. Because it looks like with the ObamaCare fiasco, they'll be out, the repubs will be in and they won't be in a mood to compromise. Obama will be the lamest duck there has been in my lifetime.

    November 21, 2013 02:12 pm at 2:12 pm |
  25. Mete Kroo

    YES DO IT!!!! It is high time now .... okay

    November 21, 2013 02:12 pm at 2:12 pm |
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