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. In My 20's

    And what is funny, is that the two DC slots that are open, are due to Democratic filibusters from the Bush presidency!

    Its incredibly ironic to have this happen now, when Bush's nominees had much longer delays than any of Obama's nominees for the DC circuit.

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

    the dems have no shame! it is only obstruction if republicans play by the rules. what a disgrace of a president!

    November 21, 2013 02:15 pm at 2:15 pm |
  3. Scola

    I'm impressed. It's been a long time coming but Democrats finally grew a pair.

    November 21, 2013 02:15 pm at 2:15 pm |
  4. Sergeant

    A vicory for Americans who are cheated out of having senators who will work for them and for the good of the nation instead of being some extremist hero on fox news.

    November 21, 2013 02:15 pm at 2:15 pm |
  5. navydan

    I am yet to see how a republican win the presidency. Until you have the whitehouse the nuclear option will be of no use. Which Staes are you going to win to win the whitehouse. Any republican want to take this one on. You will have to be very smart and know your politics!

    November 21, 2013 02:15 pm at 2:15 pm |
  6. Binyam

    51 percent is good enough to do business in the senate. I am tried of listening to non-sense speech that goes as far as 2 days by people like Ted Cruze. Priority should be given to the people's business NOT partisan politics, am frustrated with that.

    November 21, 2013 02:16 pm at 2:16 pm |
  7. freeme10

    I understand the desire to do this, I really do. But this sets an ugly precedent.

    November 21, 2013 02:16 pm at 2:16 pm |
  8. War Patriot

    Hypocrite! Hypocrite! Hypocrite! That's what Obama is. When he was a senator he voted against the nuclear option. Now, that the Dems have majority of Dems in the Senate he is all for it! Well, after the 2014 elections the Republicans will be the majority in both houses and I hope they run roughshod over the Dems. Be careful what you wish for, Barry!

    November 21, 2013 02:16 pm at 2:16 pm |
  9. Wes

    Hairy reed needs to go.

    November 21, 2013 02:17 pm at 2:17 pm |
  10. Hu Pharted

    Harry Reid does not care. He will only be a senator 3 more years.

    By the way...
    Hu Pharted

    November 21, 2013 02:17 pm at 2:17 pm |
  11. The Worm, Jr.

    Well of course he supports it. Rules and the Constitution don't mean anything to him. I wonder if he would have supported it if it came up for a vote when he was in the Senate pre-2008?

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

    It is now time for all-out war on the Democrats. Screw them all.

    November 21, 2013 02:17 pm at 2:17 pm |
  13. Thinker

    As I was pondering how ugly Reid is and how he will regret this, I realized that Obama's right-hand man is an old white man! lol

    November 21, 2013 02:17 pm at 2:17 pm |
  14. icu

    and finally the democrats put the repliblican in their place...I salute u..senate reid.. a more liberal courts system is just what this country need.

    November 21, 2013 02:17 pm at 2:17 pm |
  15. VotingBLKAmerican (yes were alive)

    GOOD considering the repuks behavior the past 6+ years H. Reid should had done this shortly after the last election. Hopefully, this will put an end to game playing repuks in the Senate have been playing for to long now. Lets just see what they (repuks) come up with to cry about now.

    November 21, 2013 02:17 pm at 2:17 pm |
  16. Ron

    Once again we find out Democrats are nothing but communists. Wait until the Republicans take over, you will be very sorry Reid!

    November 21, 2013 02:17 pm at 2:17 pm |
  17. Remind Me?

    Remind me again. Which country do I live in? Wow, this is pretty scary. I can't believe this is even an legal tactic. I suspect an opposite reaction is in store for Dems.. Good luck with than.

    Signed,

    Independent for a good reason- this is a prime example of one of them.

    November 21, 2013 02:17 pm at 2:17 pm |
  18. Penone

    @Dee – "Finally! Now let's move forward and help the President succeed!" --

    This is the difference between people like you and people like me – my goal is not for the President to succeed. My goal is for the American PEOPLE to succeed.

    November 21, 2013 02:17 pm at 2:17 pm |
  19. mitchyj

    One respondent said he is happy to have the Republicans take over, claiming they are the adults. With miscreants heading the GOP like Ted Cruz, what the hell is this guy smoking?

    November 21, 2013 02:17 pm at 2:17 pm |
  20. Moderate Man

    Good. Regardless of what party or group has the majority the notion that 41% of a group would have the ability to torpedo anything the other 59% of a group wants is undemocratic and preditably led to roadblocks and stagnation.

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

    Good for the democrats! It's about time they stand up to republicans who think that they can filibuster qualified candidates for the federal bench simple because they are not conservative enough. They are again trying to subvert democracy by not appointing anyone who doesn't adhere to the republican's ideological agenda. The freely elected democratic president has the constitutional authority to make judicial appointments. President Obama's nominees are well qualified and by no means part of some radical liberal conspiracy to turn the U.S. into some communist state. This idea that republicans think that they get to decide everything that happens in the federal government while sitting in the minority is just another slap in the face to the ideals that make up our representative democracy.

    November 21, 2013 02:18 pm at 2:18 pm |
  22. magnum12

    No surprise here. One more step towards communism. Lenin and Mao must be smiling down in hell.

    November 21, 2013 02:18 pm at 2:18 pm |
  23. Owen J

    First, let's set the record straight that the Republicans were not actually filibustering, all they have to do is anonymously threaten a filibuster to block a vote. A real filibuster is when the one seeking to block a vote on the legislation takes to the Senate floor and explains his reasons for preventing a vote on a particular bill. Senator Rand Paul, when taking to the Senate floor to speak about using drones, was an outstanding example of someone using the filibuster as it was meant to be used. As noted by other comments the filibuster was meant as a mechanism for the minority to use in extreme circumstances and not as a means of preventing the majority from approving any legislation.

    The Senate was meant to work on the principal of simple majority except for the following situations, approval of a treaty, approval of the nominaiton of a supreme court justice, overriding a presidential veto and the impeachment of a president. The normal workings of the Senate was therefore designed to work to represent the wishes of the people, such people having selected a majority of one party or another. Elections are supposed to have consequences. For a minority to have this much power is nothing short of nullification of the peoples wishes.

    November 21, 2013 02:18 pm at 2:18 pm |
  24. PeterD

    President Obama Legacy: Failed ACA Law and Failed Leadership so Go Nuclear.

    November 21, 2013 02:18 pm at 2:18 pm |
  25. Don

    Wait, don't tell me, let me guess: if, somehow, the Republicans end up with a majority in 2014, the "lame duck" Senate will vote to change the rules again to (a) go back to the old rules, and (b) require a 2/3 vote to invoke the nuclear option from this point forward. (Remember, the newly-elected Senate does not take over until January 3 (which is in the 20th Amendment, so it cannot be changed except by another Constitutional Amendment.)

    November 21, 2013 02:18 pm at 2:18 pm |
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