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. karma

    Finally, the Dems start to show some cojones!

    November 21, 2013 06:02 pm at 6:02 pm |
  2. Leslie

    This is the change in tone in Washington D.C. that Obama promised.

    November 21, 2013 06:05 pm at 6:05 pm |
  3. Greg

    Changing the subject from this disaster know as Obama! Obama makes hurricane Katrina look like a sprinkle!

    November 21, 2013 06:05 pm at 6:05 pm |
  4. Steve

    If you abuse it you lose it.

    November 21, 2013 06:06 pm at 6:06 pm |
  5. Chooch

    Good it is about time somebody put the petulant little children in the corner where they belong. Only a simple minded sock puppet would approve of the blatant obstructionism at every turn from the Republican party. You clowns complain about things not getting better fast enough. Here is a thought, maybe if Obama was not opposed on everything he attempts things would be getting better faster. Maybe if Republicans had tried to work with the current administration instead of declaring war on it, things would have gotten better by now. When the so called leadership of a political party declares the number one objective is to make sure a president is not re-elected instead of jobs, the economy, health care, the budget, it is plainly evident to a thinking person with more than 100 functional brain cells (that leaves out most republican supporters) something has to change. The Democrats finally grew a spine.

    November 21, 2013 06:06 pm at 6:06 pm |
  6. Jolat

    You democrats always tout how you stand up for minorities, give voice to the little guy, etc, etc. well, your party in the senate just quashed the voice of the minority. Actions speak louder than words.

    November 21, 2013 06:07 pm at 6:07 pm |
  7. asdfasdf

    so they change the rules...Obama has done this with his Obamacare stuff...make's exceptions after the law was passed, so now he can guarantee more of his czars can be in control.

    November 21, 2013 06:07 pm at 6:07 pm |
  8. Grego

    When Bush was in office the Dems blocked all kinds of appointments and many benches were sill vacant when he left office. Now the Dems want to change the rules. They better be careful for what they wish for because the next time the repugs have control of the Senate they might regret it.

    November 21, 2013 06:07 pm at 6:07 pm |
  9. JJ

    About time. Screw the obstructionists. They don't stop whining anyway.

    November 21, 2013 06:07 pm at 6:07 pm |
  10. southerngent

    Liberal news outlets ( think CBS may be doing better ) to Obama we are doing our best to hide stories about obamacare, try to stay quite and tell Reid to cool it.

    November 21, 2013 06:08 pm at 6:08 pm |
  11. likeaplan

    Eventually, politics makes hypocrites of those who partake.

    November 21, 2013 06:09 pm at 6:09 pm |
  12. Wes

    I am an independent voter. I agree with and object to views from each party almost equally. I have voted both Democrat, Republican, and Libertarian in my time. With that said, I no longer trust the Democratic party and cannot see myself ever voting for a Democrat again simply because of their tactics. It began with the attack on the 2nd amendment with the use of emotional plea as opposed to true common sense (not the kind the Democrats try to say they are, but actual common sense). NO party should have total control in this manner. The entire point in a filibuster is to allow the minority a strong hand. This is a slippery slope. It provides uncontested power to the majority Democratic party in the Senate for judicial appointees with a Democratic president in the white house. It essentially provides a mini dictatorship to the president. This isn't what this country is about and it adds to my distrust of the Democratic party. Do Democrats care what I think? maybe not, but realize that 38% of voters classify themselves as Independent. And I am sure I'm not the only one leaning away from the Democratic party as any true option.

    November 21, 2013 06:09 pm at 6:09 pm |
  13. Kendall

    Obama agrees with 'nuclear option' for filibusters.....Well...go figure..........scramble mode

    November 21, 2013 06:09 pm at 6:09 pm |
  14. Robertson

    Obama, those "obstructionist" Republicans were voted in by AMERICANS who do not agree with your statist agenda. Obama is the most dictatorial piece of garbage we've ever had in the White House. Who do you plan to appoint as judge, Obama? Bill Ayers?

    November 21, 2013 06:09 pm at 6:09 pm |
  15. kalzy

    Well done! Give em hell harry!

    November 21, 2013 06:09 pm at 6:09 pm |
  16. Shark

    More "rules don't apply to us" leadership from Nobama and the demos. Now when the Reps pull the same type of maneuvers they will scream and cry and call them names.

    November 21, 2013 06:10 pm at 6:10 pm |
  17. sno

    Democrats is a shame for America.
    Democrats stated that their support minorities but only when its convenient for them .

    November 21, 2013 06:10 pm at 6:10 pm |
  18. Bill

    I can't wait until there's a Republican majority in the Senate, and old Harry whines and cries about the fact that they'll hold him to this. Democracy took a turn toward the dark side today, ironically, due to people who name themselves Democrats!

    November 21, 2013 06:10 pm at 6:10 pm |
  19. Conscience of a Conservative

    Democracy is as much about process is as it is about results. Well today Obama and the Democrats under-mined process by taking away a key tool used by the minority that he himself almost a decade ago spoke so passionately about. It is both hypocritical and a belief that the ends justifies the means , something one would expect not in a democracy but in a fascist state.

    November 21, 2013 06:10 pm at 6:10 pm |
  20. Bill Smells

    Democrats just broke the system for short-term gains. Thanks for opening up the gates of Hell on the American people.

    November 21, 2013 06:10 pm at 6:10 pm |
  21. james

    I wonder when the Democrats will declare Obama our Dictator and there will be no more elections or votes. This is what Hugo Chavez did and the Democrats are doing the same thing. Americans better wake up and do something while we still can.

    November 21, 2013 06:11 pm at 6:11 pm |
  22. Ralphiec88

    Very disappointing and I hope both sides will have the sense to do what's right. It is not reasonable to hold judicial nominations hostage and the GOP should allow these to proceed. At the same time the Dems should take the nuclear option back off the table.

    November 21, 2013 06:11 pm at 6:11 pm |
  23. Look out

    Tyranny at its finest!!!!

    November 21, 2013 06:12 pm at 6:12 pm |
  24. Sherrie Ludwig

    Sometimes the only way to break a logjam in a real river is with dynamite. In this metaphorical logjam, the filibuster reform is the dynamite, and at least the nominees will get through. In the most inactive and stalled Congress EVER. Because of the fragmentation and polarization of the parties, there is no cooperation and compromise left in the Congress, in either house. Speaker Bohner may bluster and vow revenge all he wants, but short of physical violence,there is nothing further that he can do to impede governance that he has not already implimented.

    November 21, 2013 06:14 pm at 6:14 pm |
  25. Taylor

    What a great political move to eliminate more of your oppositions power. Once the Democratic party controls the courts (no checks), grants amnesty to immigrants (80%-20% in their favor come election time) and holds both houses of congress (direct result of owning the judicial system and padding your electorate with immigrants) then we will finally have a totallitarian government. Awesome. It will be sweet when we don't have to think for ourselves. (If you're reading this and didn't notice the sarcasm I'm even more afraid of what the future holds). Imagine if any past Senate had done the same thing. The current power party is much worse than the time of Nixon.

    November 21, 2013 06:14 pm at 6:14 pm |
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