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. Richard Cory

    All you Libs whining about Republican obstructionism check this: Hard Right Repub Pres and Senate, feeding the Military, cutting Social Services, UN-regulating Wall St, and appointing the most Conservative Judges, God in all Schools (and add all other Conservative wish lists) – and expect the Libs to go along with all of it. If they resist ANY of it, they will be just racists, ignorant, America hating uneducated fools. How does that tinfoil hat fit? Now you see the dilemma we are in.

    November 21, 2013 02:52 pm at 2:52 pm |
  2. Richard Madsen

    Washington is supposed to move slowly. The founders designed it that way.

    November 21, 2013 02:52 pm at 2:52 pm |
  3. kjfuller7

    To all the people proclaiming a wave of tea party victories in the mid-term elections... you know nothing about demographics. With each dying generation of old, white men you lose that much more power. There's nothing you can do to stop it, it's too late. White folk haven't been making babies for 30+ years. Hispanics are fornicating like crazy... in 2 generations they will be the majority. Besides... the stain of tea party bile won't be washed away no matter how bad "obamacare" and the senate nuclear option turns out. The crazy, over-the-top conservatives have turned the country into an US vs THEM on every issue... only this time the THEM's are fighting back. It's fun to watch though, isn't it? K!

    November 21, 2013 02:53 pm at 2:53 pm |
  4. JIm

    This must be important since the headlines have a point size equal to the Philippine typhoon.

    November 21, 2013 02:53 pm at 2:53 pm |
  5. morrie

    It was a long time coming but Reid finally did the right thing. The republicans have rejected every nominee the President has put forward, just to score political points. The Dems may have filibustered some people but did not use the filibuster to the extent these repubs have. The repubs had no intention of confirming anybody for these jobs as long as Obama is president.

    November 21, 2013 02:53 pm at 2:53 pm |
  6. Anonymous

    This is really bad for America. It wasn't just 7 short years ago that Harry Reid, Obama, and Joe Biden were speaking about how bad this option is the country. Not one single person should think this is a good thing.

    November 21, 2013 02:53 pm at 2:53 pm |
  7. Red Dwarf

    Beware. Berlin in the early 1930s. The German "legal" system had their courtrooms packed with 'compliant' judges picked based on their political ideology, too

    November 21, 2013 02:53 pm at 2:53 pm |
  8. Greg

    and how warped to claim that the GOP will "right the ship"...are you kidding?...these right wing freaks are doing everything they can to sink the U.S. ship.

    November 21, 2013 02:53 pm at 2:53 pm |
  9. Cpt Obvious

    You know that rule works both way right? You not gonna whine, cry later when that rule is used against Democrats. Like Filibuster rule they came up with and now hate.

    November 21, 2013 02:54 pm at 2:54 pm |
  10. Craig

    I never want to hear whining in the media about partisanship again. This move by the Democrats guarantees that there will be no checks on appointments from the far left when the Democrats are in power, and no checks on the far right when Republicans are in power. This will only make partisanship worse, polarization worse, and getting anything done harder.

    November 21, 2013 02:54 pm at 2:54 pm |
  11. Brandon C.

    This is the worst thing to happen to our Senate in a very long time, and the sad part is that we won't know it until the Neocons are back in power. This is very, very bad.

    November 21, 2013 02:54 pm at 2:54 pm |
  12. ironmike

    Communism starts when you change the rules just to suit you!!

    November 21, 2013 02:54 pm at 2:54 pm |
  13. Himself

    It's about time. Republicans can cry all they like about setting a bad precedent, but they've already abused their power of filibuster so badly that there was no other way. There was also no doubt that even if the Democrats hadn't resorted to the "nuclear option," the Republicans would have readily enacted it the very moment they met their first filibuster by a Democrat.

    November 21, 2013 02:54 pm at 2:54 pm |
  14. 44calibergnome

    "How a minority,
    Reaching majority,
    Seizing authority,
    Hates a minority."

    November 21, 2013 02:54 pm at 2:54 pm |
  15. name. willard

    I said mocked out. Of reid that more obama fraud give that barack obama entrien existence is based on fraud how it surpise that his re-election based on yet another we how know that the unemployment number that came out in the september before the election lie and well and the lie were based on anothr from above more

    November 21, 2013 02:54 pm at 2:54 pm |
  16. Roger

    It's about time. What's Congress's approval rating ? Last I heard, it was around 9 %, and the presidents was at 39%. Why is congresss's approval rating so low. Maybe because they WON't do anything, other than fillerbuster about everything this presidents tried to do. The very things he campaigned on and was elected by over 5 million votes to do. The way democracy is SUPPOSED to work, is that the MAJORITY rules. If the Republicans want to rule, than they should run on issues that the majority want, NOT by fillerbustering, gerrymandering, voter suppression, and buying off the supreme court for spending UN-LIMITED campaign funds to BUY political office

    November 21, 2013 02:55 pm at 2:55 pm |
  17. mucklucky

    Just curious... how many times did the Republicans filibuster during a nomination for an appointment? Did someone yell "Squirrel" and Harry go off running?

    November 21, 2013 02:55 pm at 2:55 pm |
  18. cog in the wheel

    In my view, the problem with filibusters is they've become standard practice. Where they used to be a relative rarity, now politicians from both parties use them indiscriminately–and it's plainly obvious the GOP has abused them far more than the Democrats. Too bad the focus has become 'party first' instead of governing for the benefit of the country.

    November 21, 2013 02:56 pm at 2:56 pm |
  19. ItHad2Bdone!

    Unfortunately, it had to be done.
    The thing is that the Republicans have a fatal flaw – that is, they tend to go to extremes in everything when they get a chance. They met on the night that Obama was inaugurated and came up with a strategy of "Just say NO!" – and they pushed that to the extreme.

    The country needs jobs – they even said "NO!" to jobs bills that they had supported. The ACA was based on THEIR ideas... they still said "NO!". Hating the President more than you love America is not a good thing for America.

    I am just praying that moderate Republicans who can have a healthy honest debate about issues will rise up and that the extremists will go back under the rocks from whence they came! We desperately need a healthy, thoughtful TWO Party system (or maybe a THREE Party system) that works! HATE will destroy us all in the end if we keep this up! Also, we need to get rid of poisonous hate mongers like FOX!

    November 21, 2013 02:56 pm at 2:56 pm |
  20. divisive

    How could the Congress become "even more divisive". Let's face it: at least it prevents the minority to terrorize the majority.

    November 21, 2013 02:56 pm at 2:56 pm |
  21. Johnny 5

    If you cant win then change the rules in your favor. The two party system has been nuked it appears.

    November 21, 2013 02:56 pm at 2:56 pm |
  22. Don

    @MiNiMaTiC, "This filibuster rule change only applies to certain appointees, not Supreme Court Justices and not pending legislation" – yet. Do you honestly think that the Republicans won't retaliate the first chance they get by pulling their own Nuclear Option and preventing filibustering of Supreme Court justices? How long would it then be before a majority opinion reads: "We need to reconsider (translate: we are reversing) Roe v. Wade"?

    November 21, 2013 02:56 pm at 2:56 pm |
  23. Tierney

    Looks par for the course once again.
    When the Dems can't get anything passed they just change the rules or just make another Presidential Executive order. What a joke !!! One day they won't be in power anymore and they will be the minority and they will have to live with all the crap they changed effecting their ability. I'm sure they will just cry about it then and use the media to blame the Republicans for doing it.
    Ohhh – Life would be so much easier if I was just another sheep, like all the others, being led blindly by my ruling class...

    November 21, 2013 02:57 pm at 2:57 pm |
  24. Bill

    The best thing that has ever happened. When take control we can make Harry dance like a little puppet.

    November 21, 2013 02:57 pm at 2:57 pm |
  25. styx

    This was amazingly short sighted- firstly, Reid himself in 2008 declared (in an interview with Tom Daschle) that the nuclear option could destroy the country, that its very proposed use was a dark period in our history.

    Second, they don't seem to realize that this change will also apply should the GOP take the senate.

    November 21, 2013 02:57 pm at 2:57 pm |
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