November 21st, 2013
09:17 AM ET
5 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 (2,692 Responses)
  1. Kam

    Yet another example of partisan politics tearing the country apart. And from the comments here you're all blind to it. It's not one group thinking they'll always be the majority, or who will complain and when. We have a congress that is so partisan it does not work. We have executive and judicial positions that can't be filled because of fillibuster. That hurts Americans, and for what? Partisan politics. Down with fillibuster. Down with partisan politics. Down with the public watching politics like it's a football game. Get the government to work for the people again.

    November 21, 2013 02:31 pm at 2:31 pm |
  2. jeff

    The Republicans and the Democrats put on their dog and pony show, while the American tax payer loses yet another tool for checks ands balances.

    November 21, 2013 02:31 pm at 2:31 pm |
  3. James Zumwalt

    The system was designed to be "broken", as we call it. The Framers established the two chambers in such a way that we sacrificed efficiency for democracy. They knew inefficiency is better than risking centralized power. Kings, emperors, and authoritarianism are efficient. In my opinion, Harry Reid (and anyone wanting to sacrifice liberty for efficiency/security) is not "supporting and defending the Constitution", which is, ironically, the very oath by which they hold the power to suggest such things. Wake up everyone, we have to stop the trend. Democrat or Republican, we should all choose liberty.

    November 21, 2013 02:31 pm at 2:31 pm |
  4. Big Daddy

    Here's the reason behind the pattern of obstruction: The GOP is doing its best to minimize the negative impact this president can have on our country. Has this radical not gone far enough? The lies would be almost tolerable if there were solid, meaningful and productive actions behind them.

    November 21, 2013 02:32 pm at 2:32 pm |
  5. Christopher Rose

    I tend to support Democrats, but this is bad. Very bad. The fact we have reached this level of discord as a nation is troubling.Maybe that Russian guy who predicted several years ago we were going to splinter into 5 or 6 separate nations with different geographical and demographic interest wasn't far off. Of course after seeing what Republicans did to teachers here in NC and their draconian 13th century mentality, maybe this was warranted.

    November 21, 2013 02:32 pm at 2:32 pm |
  6. Guest

    Obama will buy votes, lie, steal, cheat and change the rules to get his communist agenda through.

    November 21, 2013 02:32 pm at 2:32 pm |
  7. LauriM

    I think instead of getting rid of the filibuster altogether they should have said you get 10 per year and that's it. Choose wisely.

    November 21, 2013 02:32 pm at 2:32 pm |
  8. J Whistle

    2014 is comng?? Actions like these suggest they think elections are never going to happen again!! Venezuela any one?

    November 21, 2013 02:32 pm at 2:32 pm |
  9. Name dude

    Typical....NObama and his minions change rules and laws to fit their needs. What a joke

    November 21, 2013 02:32 pm at 2:32 pm |
  10. ari

    oh god!!! at this rate, we may actually be headed for......... a democracy in which the majority rules. terrifying!

    November 21, 2013 02:33 pm at 2:33 pm |
  11. Kathleen

    YES because Washington is not partisan enough.

    November 21, 2013 02:33 pm at 2:33 pm |
  12. Matt

    So I guess Obama is in favor of creating a much more decisive atmosphere in Washington, the thing he so strongly warned against in 2005.

    November 21, 2013 02:33 pm at 2:33 pm |
  13. Hueyett

    Democrats only follow rules when it benefits the 1%.

    November 21, 2013 02:33 pm at 2:33 pm |
  14. darknesscrown

    As far as I am able to ascertain, this rule change doesn't prevent the minority from filibustering, it just requires you to ACTUALLY filibuster...on par with what Texas does, no? Now, if you have a LEGITIMATE opposition to a presidential appointee, you will have to TALK about why instead of just having your page hit a button for you while you're on the golf links. I don't see how this is a NUCLEAR option...other than the fact the the GOP will now absolutely use it whenever they take control again (I sincerely doubt it will be 2014 LMAO!)

    November 21, 2013 02:33 pm at 2:33 pm |
  15. Pritch

    Wait a minute, the comment by Dee "Now let's move forward and help the president to succeed", what do you mean by that? How does judicial appointments "help the president succeed"? I would ask, how did you help president Bush succeed? If you don't have an answer, but just a smug comment, then anything you say is irrelevant.

    November 21, 2013 02:33 pm at 2:33 pm |
  16. Steve

    It maybe or may not be good. But if a bad deal is coming down the line I'm sure some of either party will join up to stop a bad deal. Obamacare isn't perfect but it has good intentions. It's a shame they have to fight everything tooth and nail. They are ripping the country apart. Other nations are laughing at us. There is no respect anymore. People don't even respect their own President. It's sickening. People are acting like dumb animals. They all just want that $$$ and power.

    November 21, 2013 02:33 pm at 2:33 pm |
  17. YeahRight

    What is unprecedented is the democrat party ramming policies down America's throats that America does not want. Continuing the wars, keeping gitmo open, failing to pass a windfall profits tax against oil companies, and the DOZENS of other campaign promises broken. In addition to that, we all get a completely failed health care system we did NOT WANT.

    America WANTED single-payer, but Obama's corporatist handlers would not allow that.

    I am DONE with the Democratic party.

    November 21, 2013 02:33 pm at 2:33 pm |
  18. Rick

    Its not like the House GOP's didn't change the rules. Only the majority leader can bring a motion up on the floor now. Didn't see anybody raising any fuss when they changed that rule the other month before the government shutdown. They don't need to get paid if all they are good for is trying to stop things and not govern like we elected them to do. FIRE them all and have term limits. Bet they get there acts together then

    November 21, 2013 02:33 pm at 2:33 pm |
  19. amie Name

    I can't stand any of these people, i will be so glad to get this man out of DC I don't know what to do.

    November 21, 2013 02:34 pm at 2:34 pm |
  20. geeman99

    THIS is the beginning of the end! Our government is based on checks and balances. No the dems have decided they don't like that – they should change the name of their party from democrats to fascists.

    Of course, when the fascists become the majority in the senate one day in the future – they will vote the rule back into existence.

    This is SO WRONG in so many ways! This is NOT what our government is about!!!

    November 21, 2013 02:34 pm at 2:34 pm |
  21. Steve

    One of these two parties is going to come out on top with all the dictatorship powers eventually. This county is going through the cycles of democracy back to a dictatorship soon. Apathy is one of those cycles.

    November 21, 2013 02:34 pm at 2:34 pm |
  22. mountainmixes

    That's the funniest thing I ever heard ... no matter who has power the other side can't block their appointments ... UNLESS the party that holds the presidency isn't the one that holds power in congress ... then it will be hilarious!!!!

    November 21, 2013 02:34 pm at 2:34 pm |
  23. gj

    As soon as Party X proposes, Party Y automatically opposes. As soon as Party Y proposes, Party X automatically opposes. If by some chance, Party Y or Party X, proposes something either party had previously proposed, then either Party X or Party will reversing its position to maintain automatic opposition. Both parties blame the other for failure to act. Read "Mistakes were made–but not by me" which unveils how and why this happens: cognitive dissonance.

    November 21, 2013 02:34 pm at 2:34 pm |
  24. klamerus@Pobox.com

    Frankly the filibuster is moronic. It changes the discussion from one of voting (normal majority, supermajority, etc.) to one of who's got the most endurance to force a different level of voting.

    November 21, 2013 02:34 pm at 2:34 pm |
  25. Steve

    for someone who just barely got re-elected... harry reid sure thinks he's a big shot for some odd reason.

    November 21, 2013 02:34 pm at 2:34 pm |
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