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. Scott

    So they have now publicly declared war. we want what we want and to hell with any objections.

    now they will have to pay they piper for this choice. when they are in the minority they will feel all the pain and have not one tool to object with.
    short sited gains will end up costing them in the long run.

    bad choice

    November 21, 2013 05:09 pm at 5:09 pm |
  2. Namepaul

    I really can not stand this president or this senate.

    November 21, 2013 05:09 pm at 5:09 pm |
  3. John

    John T, thinking the MINORITY has 'power' in a democracy s a delusion. Take a pill now.

    November 21, 2013 05:09 pm at 5:09 pm |
  4. I AM

    There has been obstruction to government nominees that is way beyond anything that has been done before. Check for yourself and see how long it has taken to get a vote on nominees. Some have been over 240 days without a vote. There are over 65 nominees that are waiting for appointment. The republicans scold the white house for not filling vacancies, when they are the ones that are blocking the votes. All other presidents at this time in their presidency had less than 20 people waiting for vote and most only took 60 days to have a vote. It’s the same obstructionism and lies the republicans have based all their policies on.

    November 21, 2013 05:10 pm at 5:10 pm |
  5. Eric Hatch

    It's about damn time! Personally, I'd prefer a 55-vote cloture rule, but anything is better than the "gotcha" game that has stagnated government. A plague on the lot of 'em.

    November 21, 2013 05:10 pm at 5:10 pm |
  6. Robert N. constant

    Boehner and the House Republicans have established the rules of engagement. It is about time that they learn that Democarts can give them back . It will be a blessing that we will not have to listen to Cruz read any more Dr. Seuss.

    November 21, 2013 05:10 pm at 5:10 pm |
  7. KrjMc

    Must really be hard being a GOP politician and have the liberals do what they have been doing for decades, refuse to bargain. It's always the dems that have to be the ones to give in. It's time the conservative understand that most of us do not stand with you or your ideals regardless of those few who voted you in. Stop trying to disrupt our government and our country and start working to make things better for all of us.

    November 21, 2013 05:10 pm at 5:10 pm |
  8. roger

    Words cannot describe my feelings on Obama, Harry Reid, or Nancy Pelosi. These people are a plague on this country. I just hope that everything that they do to us can be undone when a Republican or Independent gets in office.

    November 21, 2013 05:11 pm at 5:11 pm |
  9. chainyanker

    Isn't democracy about majority rules? 51 out of 100 is a majority, so what's the problem?

    November 21, 2013 05:11 pm at 5:11 pm |
  10. Name Average American

    It is hilarious how Obama was against it when he was a Senator in the minority. What a two faced liar!!! Worst president ever! Has no idea how to work with people or our Allies. What a joke.

    November 21, 2013 05:11 pm at 5:11 pm |
  11. onlymho

    vote them all out before we lose the last of our liberties

    November 21, 2013 05:11 pm at 5:11 pm |
  12. USMC70114

    The Republicans will control the Senate again, maybe not next term, but eventually they will. What will be the Democrat's last vote in the last session before Republicans take power? Change the rules back.

    November 21, 2013 05:12 pm at 5:12 pm |
  13. Cory111

    Did something happen in the Senate today? I've seen Republicans actually foaming at the mouth and having conniptions. One had developed a list to the very far right in fact and was mumbling, "In coming, in coming." McConnell was wandering around mutterings, "We will make Obama a one term president."
    Hillary 2016

    November 21, 2013 05:12 pm at 5:12 pm |
  14. steve

    Wait until the next election cycle when the Republicans gain control and see how the dems feel about this new rule! Love it. Let's go, elite dems....show us how you rule!

    November 21, 2013 05:12 pm at 5:12 pm |
  15. EdwardTr

    What took so long, this should have been done at least 3 years ago as soon as it became apparent Republicans will obstruct any nominations that do not conform to Republican ideology. The approval process was meant to validate nominee's credentials and ability to perform the job not as an ideology test.

    November 21, 2013 05:12 pm at 5:12 pm |
  16. deek5

    More lies.

    "He cited what he said has been, over the past five years, "an unprecedented pattern of obstruction in Congress.""

    This has gone on since the beginning of time. He must have been too busy organizing communities to notice.

    November 21, 2013 05:12 pm at 5:12 pm |
  17. Warrenroosevelt

    I am reading a lot from liberals who are cheering on Harry Reid. You do understand that the Democrats want to hire more judges for a circuit court that has less cases than ever. The case work load is so light that there isn't enough work to go around to the existing judges, why should they hire more judges that they don't need? It doesn't make any sense.

    November 21, 2013 05:12 pm at 5:12 pm |
  18. Jeb

    we'll see how they like it if another republican president gets in office. They seem pretty confident in their electoral prospects.

    November 21, 2013 05:12 pm at 5:12 pm |
  19. Chris

    "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"

    Sen. Alexander threatens rhat the system will now work the way it's supposed to work

    November 21, 2013 05:12 pm at 5:12 pm |
  20. Steve Marcus

    Did this headline writer get fired by Fox News for being too dramatic? It's sad what CNN stoops to for attention.

    November 21, 2013 05:13 pm at 5:13 pm |
  21. texasjimbob

    What goes around comes around. I just doubled my campaign contribution to the Republican Senate races in 2014 and I encourage all Repubicans to do the same.

    November 21, 2013 05:13 pm at 5:13 pm |
  22. DeDude

    In 2005 the democrats had used the filibuster against Bush on a very limited basis – and they eventually compromised on a deal to not remove that ability. Today the Republicans use the filibuster as standard procedure for everything including blackmailing against the economy – and they refuse to make any compromise on they absurd level of filibustering. It was meant to be a protection of the minority not a tool for the dictatorship of the minority. Republicans broke that protection and that is a shame for the country as a whole.

    November 21, 2013 05:13 pm at 5:13 pm |
  23. roger

    Why is it that every comment I write needs to be read by the website before they'll let it be read by others. I don't swear or threaten in my comments so I can only assume that I must be irking the CNN people with my feelings about liberal left wing people in our government.

    November 21, 2013 05:13 pm at 5:13 pm |
  24. Wardo22

    Next we will be cancelling elections.

    November 21, 2013 05:14 pm at 5:14 pm |
  25. lindy500

    No surprise..all the democrats do is lie and cheat..

    November 21, 2013 05:14 pm at 5:14 pm |
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