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. Steve Cross

    When you don't want to cooperate or compromise this is what happens. Discussion, debate, consensus building, then voting is the way the Senate works. If you just want to roadblock everything, that's not governing! Remember that when the Republicans had the Senate majority, they threatened this very thing too. At that time, enough Democrats cooperated and busted the filibuster.

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

    In 2005, Biden Called The Nuclear Option The “Single Most Significant Vote” In His “32 Years In The Senate” And “An Example Of The Arrogance Of Power.” SEN. JOE BIDEN: “Mr. President, my friends and colleagues, I have not been here as long as Senator Byrd, and no one fully understands the Senate as well as Senator Byrd, but I have been here for over three decades. This is the single most significant vote any one of us will cast in my 32 years in the Senate. I suspect the Senator would agree with that. We should make no mistake. This nuclear option is ultimately an example of the arrogance of power. It is a fundamental power grab by the majority party, propelled by its extreme right and designed to change the reading of the Constitution, particularly as it relates to individual rights and property rights. It is nothing more or nothing less. … We have been through these periods before in American history but never, to the best of my knowledge, has any party been so bold as to fundamentally attempt to change the structure of this body.” (Sen. Joe Biden, Floor Remarks, Washington, D.C., 5/23/05)

    November 21, 2013 02:35 pm at 2:35 pm |
  3. Data Driven

    @glaird,

    ""Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely."
    Now all you 'democracy' types, who never studied your history to understand why the US was a representative republic, will find out how a simply majority can result in what is called "tyranny of the majority"."

    "Absolute" power? From Senators who can be voted out every 6 years? Senators who were voted into office directly by the citizens? Nah!

    "Simple" majority? Heck, you can call it a "complex" majority if you want! A majority's a majority! Whoo-hoo!

    November 21, 2013 02:35 pm at 2:35 pm |
  4. 2Km N of GZero

    The Party of No was the mouthpiece of the Tea Party. Now they are irrelevant.

    November 21, 2013 02:35 pm at 2:35 pm |
  5. Eagle08432

    If the Rep take the Senate they can change the rules and Obama can go play golf everyday and the destruction of this nation will stop........for a while!

    November 21, 2013 02:36 pm at 2:36 pm |
  6. newsjet

    This is totally consistent with Reid and even more so with Obama. Ignore the separation of powers between the Legislative and Executive branches. Change the rules to help push the liberal/socialist cause. What is next? Abolish the Congress and assume total presidential authority?

    November 21, 2013 02:37 pm at 2:37 pm |
  7. Aerokid

    @badua Did you not see where republicans back in the bush era said they would do it (which Reid has threatened a few times) but never did. Do you not realize the democrats block nominees int he bush era as republicans are doing now. or is your left eye that blind?

    @jay in florida The tool has been used the same way by both sides. It's just so many eyes are on congress right now that people are noticing it

    If either party ends up taking a majority in the house and senate and takes the white house too, we are looking at a very good chance that very extremist things from one party or the other can happen which I would hate to see. This is very very short sighted. Can't say I am surprised, so many people are short sighted these days, so much we've already mortgaged off the next 40+ years

    November 21, 2013 02:37 pm at 2:37 pm |
  8. Ben

    Is anyone else concerned, regardless of party alignment, that maybe the people in majority are changing the rules on a whim? And what else will they try to change? I'm not saying they will abuse the power more than they, they meaning Congress as a whole, already have. Maybe it's time both parties start listening to those who elect them. But of course the problem is that typically only the fringe elements yell the loudest and make the most noise. Everyday citizens are busy trying to make ends meet.

    November 21, 2013 02:37 pm at 2:37 pm |
  9. patt

    Dee – the president will never succeed – total failure.
    Dems – can't find a way so just change the rules to your favor? And we wonder why our state is soooooooo baddddddddddd.

    November 21, 2013 02:37 pm at 2:37 pm |
  10. Jay

    What goes around comes around......And when it does dont complain about it

    November 21, 2013 02:37 pm at 2:37 pm |
  11. Sniffit

    "So the GOP was able to avoid doing this by finding agreement across the aisle"

    Because the Dems were open to compromise.

    "and the Dems couldn't get an agreement so they just changed the rules?"

    Because the GOP/Teatrolls are adamantly opposed to compromise....as proven by 5 years of filibuster abuse that has consistently set new and more ridiculous records.

    November 21, 2013 02:37 pm at 2:37 pm |
  12. maddog7676

    this is a horrendous move by the Democrats that, yet again, like Obamacare, will back fire. I don't understand how smart people (presumably) get so caught up in the moment and so short-sighted. Nobody likes when someone changes the rules of the game. Democrats don't filibuster!??? Puh-leeze. wow, I mean this is really dumb. guess they want to lose seats in '14.

    November 21, 2013 02:37 pm at 2:37 pm |
  13. stephanurus

    I think he said it was only fair that the rule apply in both directions. Finally! Balls in the Senate!

    November 21, 2013 02:38 pm at 2:38 pm |
  14. Pritch

    This will no doubt come back to haunt the Democrats, but they will deal with that when they are out of power. Cry, complain and just throw a fit, like the crybabies they are. In the grand scheme of things it won't matter for this administration, since political appointments (except for judges), will only last for a handful of years anyway. They view this as a win, but in the end, it will be one of the biggest blunders of the Democratic party. All you liberals that are championing this sham today just understand. The next president, especially if they are in office for 2 terms, will be appointing up to 4 supreme court judges. You better hope that a Democrat wins the office, because if not, that court will be right leaning for 25 years or more to come. Because no question about it, the Republicans will take the Senate in 2014.

    November 21, 2013 02:38 pm at 2:38 pm |
  15. here and back again

    This is the correct choice. The Right-wing has done NOTHING to help this country. Once they start to show responsibility again, then we can talk about reverting it back to 60 votes.

    November 21, 2013 02:38 pm at 2:38 pm |
  16. Eric

    The democrats will rue the day they did this. In the long term, the republicans will right the ship.

    November 21, 2013 02:38 pm at 2:38 pm |
  17. killer

    Blah blah blah blah..................... same ole politics regardless of which party is in power- the people suffer.

    November 21, 2013 02:38 pm at 2:38 pm |
  18. yeahItsMe72

    A better approach would have been to rollback the filibuster rules and once again made them talking filibusters. As soon as they let senators 'file' for a filibuster the number of filibusters rose dramatically. At least if someone has to talk non stop, they can't hold things up indefinitely. There's a subtle incentive to negotiate.

    The current filibuster rules just let the Republicans block everything with no reason to negotiate. If they were up there talking for hours on end they'd be forced to compromise a bit.

    This nuclear option goes in the wrong direction.

    November 21, 2013 02:39 pm at 2:39 pm |
  19. Anonymous

    It's about time ! What's Congress's approvel rating ? They've only proven that they're in Washington to serve themselves and wealthy elitists. This president was elected by over 5 million votes. He ran on a set of issues that the MAJORITY of our country wanted. The opposing party has fillerbuster over 400 times, (a record by far.). They SHUT DOWN our government. And now they crying foul when Reid finially decided enough is enough. Give me a break already.

    November 21, 2013 02:39 pm at 2:39 pm |
  20. Sonny

    I don't consider Harry Reid a Senator or a politician. He is a radical liberal tyrant hack. This guy is not focused on the people ...he is focused on waging a war with the GOP. When John Boehner told him to go F himself , he deserved every bit of it

    November 21, 2013 02:39 pm at 2:39 pm |
  21. Vincent

    Im so sick and tired of neo-fascist Republicans. Just let the system work. You know what is more sacred than a filibuster, our SYSTEM OF GOVERNMENT! I mean, the Senate is worthless right now. Worthless and propogandist conspiracy theorists like Ted Cruz are jihading our way of life. I expected more out of Senator Rand as well. This is not what libertarianism is about. Blocking judicial nomineess have nothing to do with it. These terrorists just want to play the system and enough is enough.

    November 21, 2013 02:39 pm at 2:39 pm |
  22. Phillyfarmer

    The Founding Fathers are turning over in their graves. This is NOT what the founding fathers envisioned Mr. Obama!!!

    November 21, 2013 02:40 pm at 2:40 pm |
  23. Edwin

    @Miles Pro
    "So the GOP was able to avoid doing this by finding agreement across the aisle, and the Dems couldn't get an agreement so they just changed the rules?"

    You actually have it wrong. In 2005 the GOP threatened to go nuclear unless the Democrats agreed to behave better - and the democrats agreed to behave better. In 2013, the Democrats threatened to go nuclear unless the GOP agreed to behave better - and the GOP said they did not want to behave like adults.

    The bad guys here are the ones who have repeatedly obstructed appointments, over and over. The current filibuster happened because Senator Graham was mad about something completely unrelated to the appointee - Benghazi.

    Should he be mad about what happened in Benghazi? Maybe, maybe not. But it has NOTHING to do with the appointment - so blocking the appointment in protest is irresponsible. Worse, it is blocking the Senate's ability to function at all. When the minority party can keep the Senate from doing ANY business, simply for the sake of causing the government to stop working, then things need to change.

    This is change. It is needed because we can no longer trust Senators to behave in the country's best interests.

    November 21, 2013 02:40 pm at 2:40 pm |
  24. no shoes, no shirt, no service

    Bad for the country. Short sighted, no one wins in the long run.
    @badua, while you're spewing bile you might want to catch your breath and acknowledge that the Republicans did not do it when they could have. Be partisan, but at least try to be factual.

    November 21, 2013 02:40 pm at 2:40 pm |
  25. TrudyBird

    It's about time. Now let's get some work done!1

    November 21, 2013 02:40 pm at 2:40 pm |
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