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. 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 |
  2. 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 |
  3. Anonymous

    What a horribly misleading headline! Shame on you!

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

    I find it laughable that President Obama is talking about things needing to be normal and "says" he is concerned about future generations. So I guess that means it is now "normal" to lie to the American public even though, as he does, it puts our future generations at risk due his fiscal policies and quite frankly, American at risk of continuing downhill economically because of those said policies. I hope I never become "normal" like our illustrious president.

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

    Is this a good this or a bad thing set a side politics. If it is bad then it does not matter who is doing it. If you only look at this because you are a democrate or a republican then that is not a good reason. If you look at this through your party then your view is skewed and not valid.

    November 21, 2013 04:21 pm at 4:21 pm |
  6. Rob

    Whoever said the debt was cut in half is BS, BIG TIME...Look at the DEBT on the net it is rising as fast as ever. And insurance premiums ARE NOT their lowest. Such liars like your daddy Obama. Ask all the corporations who has had double the price of insurance premiums. Ask them!!!

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

    This will come back to bite the Democrats in the butt. Sure hope so.

    November 21, 2013 04:21 pm at 4:21 pm |
  8. Bob

    Let me see: The Republicans yes the GOP changed the rules in the house so there could be not vote (not even their own party) unless One person allowed the vote which of course he (Boehner) did not. Now the GOP is whining like little babies because the Senate Dem's changed the rules. Well when you start something expect something else to happen.

    November 21, 2013 04:22 pm at 4:22 pm |
  9. anAmerican1954

    Good. It's about time. Note that the Republicans have threatened us of this option when they were in the majority and the Democrats agreed to compromise to prevent it. If Republicans were willing to compromise, this wouldn't have to happen. I look forward to progress from our Congress in general.

    November 21, 2013 04:22 pm at 4:22 pm |
  10. Royce

    Wow, what a huge and ignorant mistake. If you can't muster 60% of the votes for a candidate then the candidate isn't suitable for the position.

    November 21, 2013 04:22 pm at 4:22 pm |
  11. Jackson


    Check out the video online of Joe Biden saying why the nuclear option was wrong, and bad, eight years ago.


    I'll do that, if you compare the things Governor Romney said that Presidential Candidate Romney said the opposite of.

    November 21, 2013 04:22 pm at 4:22 pm |
  12. j007bond

    The double standard strikes again. Now let's get rid of the Electoral College!!!

    November 21, 2013 04:23 pm at 4:23 pm |
  13. jw

    Typical Democratic process if you cannot lie cheat or steal the law, you change the rules so you can win!

    November 21, 2013 04:23 pm at 4:23 pm |
  14. fabarbara

    What a bunch of phony Democrats..Both Reid, Biden and Obama were so against the nuclear action Now years later all a for it. Shame on you guys

    November 21, 2013 04:23 pm at 4:23 pm |
  15. The REAL Truth...

    "A deliberate and determined effort to obstruct everything, no matter what the merits, just to re-fight the results of an election is not normal, and for the sake of future generations, it cannot become normal," President Obama said.
    ABSOLUTELY!!! The GOP and TP supporters should be careful what they wish for. If by some miracle then gain seats in 2014 and/or the Presidency in 2016, the Dem's will do to that Congress IN SPADES, what the GOP has done for the last 4 yrs... IT CANNOT BE ALLOWED TO CONTINUE!!

    November 21, 2013 04:23 pm at 4:23 pm |
  16. werner rottenkroel

    Obama should go back to munching on Pelousy's box instead of trying to do something he doesn't understand: Governing!

    November 21, 2013 04:23 pm at 4:23 pm |
  17. Bonnie

    President Barack Obama, then a first year senator, told his colleagues on the floor that partisanship in Washington would only get worse if the GOP resorted to the “nuclear option.”
    “The threat to change Senate rules is a raw abuse of power and will destroy the very checks and balances our founding fathers put in place to prevent absolute power by any one branch of government,”

    November 21, 2013 04:23 pm at 4:23 pm |
  18. mike

    GOOD. If they wanna keep the filibuster, take it back to what it was intended to be: a person must stand up in front of the world and keep speaking constantly. It used to come at a cost. The GOP just uses it today as an auto-kill tool.

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

    austin c

    wow it so funny to see dem vote against it before the were for it...or is it the other way... it's all the samwe to them...just give me free stuff...and they will vote for them...who cares the country is going under... even when the see this administration lie...they just don't care. where did the morals go in this country. they don't want to work...just free...but nothing is will catch with us.


    What is all this "free stuff" that you claim only people who vote for Obama get?

    Red state public assistance far outweighs blue state public assistance. How do you explain that?

    Oh, right, it's a fact, that's why you can't explain it. People like you tend to ignore facts because they just get in the way of your talking points.

    November 21, 2013 04:23 pm at 4:23 pm |
  20. Beelzel

    I, like others, wonder how quickly this will be repealed once/if the Democratic party also becomes the minority in the Senate. Most likely twice as fast as it was passed.

    November 21, 2013 04:24 pm at 4:24 pm |
  21. m7pilot

    Obama 2005: "I sense that talk of the nuclear option is more about power than about fairness."

    November 21, 2013 04:24 pm at 4:24 pm |
  22. Marc

    Sure, you all think this is great now, but this sword cuts both ways. How will you feel when the Republicans have 51 votes in the Senate – which could be coming soon. Just remember later that you supported this...

    November 21, 2013 04:24 pm at 4:24 pm |
  23. Jakinak

    We are watching the death throes of the Democrat Party in this Country. Interesting that it occurred almost 50 years to the day from when JFK died.

    November 21, 2013 04:25 pm at 4:25 pm |
  24. Carlos

    In other words they believe that one set of rules should apply to them and another set to everybody else."

    Typical democrat thinking, if we don't like the existing rules, we can just change them to suite our desires

    November 21, 2013 04:25 pm at 4:25 pm |
  25. Kay

    We have had so many unqualified people given important jobs in our Government, and a lot of those departments are having serious problems now. Do we really think appointments should be decided by any 1 party???? We are losing so much control. Soon we will be forced to have 1 party, one voice Oh, that's communism isn't it?

    November 21, 2013 04:25 pm at 4:25 pm |
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