November 21st, 2013
09:17 AM ET
8 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. teenage high school boy (16)

    Wait till 2014 – you are fired!

    November 21, 2013 04:14 pm at 4:14 pm |
  2. Larry

    Perfect reason to have term limits on congress

    November 21, 2013 04:14 pm at 4:14 pm |
  3. MilitaryAF

    The Republicans have ensured that almost NOTHING gets done in Washington. They don't care for reason, etc., they just don't want this government to move forward if its not a Republican idea. The Dems were forced to make this move, in order to take down the barricades that the Republicans put up immediately after Obama's election. If the Republicans think they even have a chance in the next several elections, it goes to show just how clueless they are.

    November 21, 2013 04:14 pm at 4:14 pm |
  4. Emperor Themble

    Abuse of the existing laws always leads to changes in the laws. Republicans were abusing their power of filibuster so often just because they hate Obama that no nominee would ever be approved. I understand the reasoning behind getting rid of it but I also think it's a bad decision because then there will not be a chance for due opposition to draw out the process where it would be warranted in the future. It sends a pretty clear message I'll give em that. "Oh you wanna try and filibuster every single thing ever to make me look like a bad President? I'll just revoke the filibuster."

    November 21, 2013 04:14 pm at 4:14 pm |
  5. mlb

    TeaBilliesKKK – a good description of them. They hate America and they hate Americans!

    November 21, 2013 04:14 pm at 4:14 pm |
  6. rock woman

    Glad to hear it - as Republicans will be when (if?) they regain the Senate majority. The simple reason: Nobody gets anything done when the minority is able to work its will because of arcane rules. The more important reason: If we expect our government to function, we need a Congress that can actually act.

    November 21, 2013 04:14 pm at 4:14 pm |
  7. OldSchool

    It's really the only thing left to be done, the Republican obstructionism really is unprecedented and cannot be allowed to continue for the sake of the country. Yes, the ACA has it's flaws, but overall it is a desperately needed change to a broken system. At this point the Republicans only seem to be interested in these reforms failing to make the president look bad, they don't actually have any sort of alternative to offer...

    November 21, 2013 04:14 pm at 4:14 pm |
  8. jorge washinsen

    Since it seems Harry Reid is running the show Obama has to like it.

    November 21, 2013 04:14 pm at 4:14 pm |
  9. Charles

    Republicans are crying foul and Democrats throughout the Country are wondering, why did it take so long for the Democratic majortiy to change the Rules in order to get something done.

    November 21, 2013 04:16 pm at 4:16 pm |
  10. baliska

    If only people could see what is coming down the road for them......and you in the liberal media that think you are doing great things will be sorry when you further the agenda for the folks that will silence you for good......

    November 21, 2013 04:16 pm at 4:16 pm |
  11. BO

    The Obama brownshirts do his dirty work, is it no wonder then that he approves?

    November 21, 2013 04:16 pm at 4:16 pm |
  12. Greg C.

    Obstructionists? This administration has the worst track record of transparency, honesty, and integrity I have ever witnessed in my life. The waste and abuse of this President, the deceptive methods used to thrust a disaster in the making with ACA, and now to essentially declare war on political discourse by implicitly overriding the rule of law with a rule that suits the so-called majority will, in the end, backfire on the Dems just as ObamaCare and the website has.

    November 21, 2013 04:16 pm at 4:16 pm |
  13. southerngent

    To all of you liberals, think about the consequences of a liberal single party government. If this is what you want, then by all means let obama have his way, but remember you would have underestimated the conservative base and a new and more powerful party (will) emerge. In other words be careful what you wish for you just might get it!

    November 21, 2013 04:17 pm at 4:17 pm |
  14. jorge washinsen

    It is a good thing no one can respond to this pig chase but Democrats.

    November 21, 2013 04:17 pm at 4:17 pm |
  15. FLIndy

    Love reading the hypocritical comments from the Obama haters – they know full well that if the shoe was on the other foot and THEIR president was being blocked at every turn they would be cheering for the nuclear option!!

    November 21, 2013 04:17 pm at 4:17 pm |
  16. benny hill

    'bout time....

    November 21, 2013 04:17 pm at 4:17 pm |
  17. Warrenroosevelt

    sly you totally ignore the fact that the US is still 3.8 trillion in debt. The 2013 deficit was reduced from 2012 but it is still 680bn -do you know why it went down? Across the board cuts (sequester) and tax increases that went into effect in 2013. As for your comments regarding Obamacare, there have been several cancer survivors who have been forced to switch plans/doctors and dont share your enthusiasm. The president, who I voted for, lied to the American people in regards to Obamacare.

    November 21, 2013 04:18 pm at 4:18 pm |
  18. BO

    If the election were held today, Obama would lose by the same margin he won in 2012. American needs representation from the Democrat brownshirt Nazis.

    November 21, 2013 04:18 pm at 4:18 pm |
  19. Valerie Cunningham

    I can't believe some of the comments on here. You actually go along with this and blame republicans because they won't go along with the corrupt president and his party? Are you kidding me? Obama didn't want it changed when republicans had control, but now that his party has control it's OK? It's not about "holding up progress" so much as it is a checks and balances. Yes the minority party will take every advantage available to get their way, (Democrat or Republican depending on the issue, but that doesn't mean you change the rules. Obama just changes the rules whenever he wants. No wonder Obama got into office, the majority of Americans are ignorant beyond belief. And those of you who call yourself democrats are so caught up in being "democrat" you can't even comprehend the situation...you just look for someone else to blame.

    November 21, 2013 04:18 pm at 4:18 pm |
  20. sammy750

    Enough McConnell Enough of being obstructive. We want work done, bills passed, nominations passed. ENOUGH MCCONELL AND REPUBLICAN ENOUGH.

    November 21, 2013 04:19 pm at 4:19 pm |
  21. Josh

    As usual this is the exact same thing that Obama argued against during the Bush Presidency but now fully supports... The Hypocrite in Chief simply does not know how to lead...

    November 21, 2013 04:19 pm at 4:19 pm |
  22. Reid Is Toxic

    Grandpa Fruitcake at it again.

    November 21, 2013 04:19 pm at 4:19 pm |
  23. Thaddius

    Thank you Harry.

    Next up: Gerrymandering and term limits!

    November 21, 2013 04:19 pm at 4:19 pm |
  24. Harvey Carter

    Well can you blame the Dems? Everything has been blocked by the Republicans. I believe that race has played a factor in some of the Republicans decisions to block qualified candidates. Why else would they block Mel Watt's nomination by the president? You should not be allowed to block every nomination that is made.

    November 21, 2013 04:19 pm at 4:19 pm |
  25. Learn to Fish

    Does this mean Libs will stop blaming the GOP for everything, at least in the Senate? nah

    November 21, 2013 04:21 pm at 4:21 pm |
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