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. Dave Hawkins

    What better way to unify the Republican caucus. This move will increase the polarized state of both the congress and the senate and at this point I see very little being accomplished for the next 2+ years. I also foresee an extended shutdown on the horizon as this will force the Republican heels firmly into the ground, they have no where else to go.

    Hunker down dems, the nuclear fallout is going to get nasty.

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

    It seems once again this man changes his mind, or lied. President Barack Obama, 2005 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 04:25 pm at 4:25 pm |
  3. scott

    Looking forward to when the Dems are in the minority, and we can load up with Right thinking people. Paybacks are hell.

    November 21, 2013 04:26 pm at 4:26 pm |
  4. J.M. Richardson

    This was absolutely necessary, and a very different political environment than in 2005. In 2005, Democrats, even in their opposition to much of what Bush and the Republicans were doing at the time, were not obstructing government, blocking appointments, causing shutdowns, etc. (i.e. damaging the everyday lives of American citizens) over petty "we don't like who's in office" ideology. It's time for guys like Ted Cruz and Mitch McConnell to grow up. Dealings in Washington always end up being about the lawmakers, their parties, their beliefs, or their agendas. What's lost on them is the affect it has on ordinary Americans, the very people who should not be forgotten in the legislative process.

    –J.M. Richardson, author: The Twenty-Nine; The Apocalypse Mechanism

    November 21, 2013 04:26 pm at 4:26 pm |
  5. Jackson

    Meyer

    Dems did the exact same thing to Bush's appointees, but now they conveniently forget about that. The republican's didn't change anything in the House of Reps, it is required to create new rules before each session. The level of ignorance among the democrats on this board is astounding, and exactly what people like Obama and Reid are playing to.

    _______________

    You left out on GLARING item.....the reason the GOP didn't change the rules on the appointments is because Bush slid them in as "Recess Appointments" to get around Congress.

    Funny how many of you just don't want to remember that.

    November 21, 2013 04:26 pm at 4:26 pm |
  6. sofork

    In 2005, Obama, Reid and the rest of the idiot democrats were screaming bloody murder when the Republicans considered such a move (which they did not invoke). Now Obama and Reid do the opposite. How hypocritical.

    November 21, 2013 04:26 pm at 4:26 pm |
  7. Frank

    The Democrats are rejoicing now, but when they are the minority they are gonna regret emasculating the minority.

    November 21, 2013 04:27 pm at 4:27 pm |
  8. Learn to Fish

    Oh well, makes it that much easier next time Repubs want to do the same thing. At least I can count on all the libs here to give them a free pass when that happens. (/sarc)

    November 21, 2013 04:27 pm at 4:27 pm |
  9. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    Mr. President
    Please tell Harry Reid and all those folks that keep emailing me for money that I just made a generous contribution online.
    You keep showing us that you've got the guts to fight these obstructionist bullies that have run ramshod over you and our democracy for the past 5 years and I will contribute to DNC coffers.
    I will not call myself a Democrat but I will align myself with those that will fight the GOPeeing Tearrorists who are intent on taking my country down.

    November 21, 2013 04:28 pm at 4:28 pm |
  10. Anonymous

    This is NOT OK! You can't just change the way the Senate works with one pen stroke! At least it shouldn't be that way. It doesn't matter if you're a Democrat or Republican, this rule change will now place more power into the hands of the majority party from here on out. Democrat or Republican. There's a reason why the filibuster function was created this way.

    I look at it that if voters are upset enough with stonewalling by politicians, then they won't vote for those politicians next time. The system shouldn't change just because one side isn't getting what they think should happen at any given time. If they do, everyone will pay for it in the end.

    What other "rules" will be changed within our government because "they aren't working" at any given moment? I think it's safe to say that any changes made or proposed to our government model will jeopardize the freedoms of us as citizens and tip the scales in favor of certain individuals or groups.

    November 21, 2013 04:55 pm at 4:55 pm |
  11. Joe

    What ever marginalizes the Republicans is fine with me – they have marginalized the rest of the country with their ridiculous behavior

    November 21, 2013 04:58 pm at 4:58 pm |
  12. M.

    What most people here forget that this rule will apply to both parties. Now and in the future when the roles might be reversed.

    November 21, 2013 04:58 pm at 4:58 pm |
  13. Ian

    Wow....they just change stuff whenever it suits them...amazing.

    November 21, 2013 04:59 pm at 4:59 pm |
  14. Catherine

    What hypocrites, back in 2005 you would have thought the world was going to stop turning when the Republicans threatened to do this, but no, there was a negotiation – something these democrats know nothing of in this administration.

    November 21, 2013 04:59 pm at 4:59 pm |
  15. HUH?

    Desperate moves by desperate people. The lies and deceptive practices now coming from the WH prove that 0bama is the WORST elected official in our history.

    November 21, 2013 05:00 pm at 5:00 pm |
  16. VL

    Separation of powers is gone. Chances to debate are gone. Sharing opposing views is gone. Law enforcement is discretionary. Do we still call this democracy? I wonder what would be next. Infinite presidential terms? Appointing next president directly? Where are the checks and balances?

    November 21, 2013 05:01 pm at 5:01 pm |
  17. You Got It

    She said this, and then voted for it anyway...........but I didn't expect any less from this "woman".

    2005.... Sen. Dianne Feinstein: “The nuclear option, if successful, will turn the Senate into a body that could have its rules broken at any time by a majority of Senators unhappy with any position taken by the minority. It begins with judicial nominations. Next, will be executive appointments. And then, legislation.”

    November 21, 2013 05:01 pm at 5:01 pm |
  18. VL

    The road to hell always starts with good intentions.

    November 21, 2013 05:03 pm at 5:03 pm |
  19. Hopeless Fool

    So it was not OK when the Democrats were a minority but now is needed when they are a majority. Anybody else tired of the stink of their lies and two-faced BS?

    November 21, 2013 05:04 pm at 5:04 pm |
  20. geeman99

    This is SO incredibly wrong! The fascists...oops, I mean the democrats...have really done it this time!

    This country's government works SO much better than any other in the history of the world because of its numerous CHECKS AND BALANCES – we have one less now...so sad...

    November 21, 2013 05:04 pm at 5:04 pm |
  21. John T

    This is an giant-sized mistake. Weakening the power of the minority is not only short-sighted, but dangerous.

    November 21, 2013 05:06 pm at 5:06 pm |
  22. Sheila

    @Dominican mama 4 Obama – YOUR COUNTRY?? You'd best step back and look at who is actually causing the problems!

    November 21, 2013 05:06 pm at 5:06 pm |
  23. Skeptic

    Mitch McConnell is such a hypocrite. In 1995 he said that the Senate should allow straight up-down votes on judicial nominees, with no filibusters, regardless of who controls the White House or the Senate.

    He's a sack of lying spittle.

    November 21, 2013 05:06 pm at 5:06 pm |
  24. WHAT

    OUTRAGEOUS. That filibuster law is there for a GOOD reason. Regardless if you are democrat or Republican. It is there to be a last resort to resist passing of controversial laws. The democrats and their dear leader are DESTROYING what America and it's laws used to represent. This is a mockery of law and a crude account of what Obama's change is...ridiculous. They are CRIMINALS in my eyes.

    November 21, 2013 05:06 pm at 5:06 pm |
  25. Logictox

    Fundamentally changing how the US government works. The most partisan president ever. In 2005 he stood on the floor of the house and blasted the GOP for even discussing the same option he supports today. The same president that called Bush a failure for asking to raise the debt limit. We are in deep trouble as a FREE nation.

    November 21, 2013 05:07 pm at 5:07 pm |
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