November 21st, 2013
09:17 AM ET
9 years 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. Larry in Houston

    I don't blame him, he should have used it long time ago.

    November 21, 2013 09:22 am at 9:22 am |
  2. Ace

    'Bout time. You can't deal with children on an adult level.

    November 21, 2013 09:23 am at 9:23 am |
  3. Kathleen

    Good. Long overdue. This has gotten absolutely ridiculous.

    November 21, 2013 09:24 am at 9:24 am |
  4. Miguel

    Good. Do it Harry, because after you lose both Houses because of Obamacare the same will be done to you and you will have no room to complain.

    November 21, 2013 09:25 am at 9:25 am |
  5. Wakeup

    There go the democrats again. When you can't get your change the rules.

    November 21, 2013 09:25 am at 9:25 am |
  6. FreddyFunk

    Go for it Harry. The GOP's endless logjam must be broken.

    November 21, 2013 09:26 am at 9:26 am |
  7. Sammy

    I hope he does and get all the bills passed and Obama nominations passed too. The Republicans are just blocking all the business in the Senate and House. We need productive law makers, not those that continue to block everything. Boehner is really getting the HEAT on immigration now. lots of demonstrations around him and Cantor. I think the entire nation needs to go to DC and kick out the Republicans. They are getting a huge wage and doing ZERO work.
    If Reid doesn't take over the Senate, the voters need to defeat him.

    November 21, 2013 09:27 am at 9:27 am |
  8. AFvet

    Harry Reid – the gift the keeps giving. Now, if the Republicans would properly use these gifts, they might manage to get a few more seats in the House and win back the Senate. I'm not holding my breath for two reasons – 1. we do still have 11 months until the elections, and 2. the Republicans can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory as well as my favorite football team.

    November 21, 2013 09:27 am at 9:27 am |
  9. current state of the union

    Let the people decide this next year, not a great idea IMHO

    November 21, 2013 09:29 am at 9:29 am |
  10. Nick

    Hopefully Harry realizes "nuclear" has serious fallout issues that can contaminate many things – not the least of which is the Democratic party.

    November 21, 2013 09:29 am at 9:29 am |
  11. texasnotea

    It's a shame republicans have forced this action by the Senate Majority leader.but I would have done it a long time ago. Presidential appointee's should be almost automatic as they were intended to be.

    November 21, 2013 09:30 am at 9:30 am |
  12. Organic1

    Oh you mean the Senate is going to pull what the House pulled during the shutdown... How original.

    November 21, 2013 09:30 am at 9:30 am |
  13. Rosslaw

    I can't wait for the right-wing to start pulling out their hankies and smelling salts over how this is a horrible restraint on their abiliity to stop all nominations from ever reaching a vote since majoity voting to these little missies is "undemocratic".

    November 21, 2013 09:32 am at 9:32 am |
  14. jpmichigan

    Let him go nuclear , eventually it will hurt the Democrats , hopefully sooner than later. Surprises are in the future for the Democrats, after the 2014 election. By 2014 there should be maybe nearly 100 million that have lost their healthcare or will. Will $95 a year, from all that can't afford healthcare, take care of the problem Mr. Obama?

    November 21, 2013 09:32 am at 9:32 am |
  15. Winning

    I like how changing the rules to be in line with what the constitution states is portrayed as a nuclear option. The entire filibuster should be abolished. I hated it when the left filibustered Bush's nominees, even though I hated those nominees, and I hate the abuse of the process that is going on in the senate right now. If your child can't play nicely with his toys, you take them away, and that's exactly what should be done with the filibuster.

    November 21, 2013 09:32 am at 9:32 am |
  16. Tom

    It is about time after all this is basically the same thing that the house does every day. In the house nothing comes up for a vote unless king Boner know he has the votes of his party to pass it. This is also the exact way it was before the gop started this crap. You can't just block everything every time and that is exactly what the house and the gop does

    November 21, 2013 09:32 am at 9:32 am |
  17. Dianne

    About time. Been stuck in limbo long enough.

    November 21, 2013 09:33 am at 9:33 am |
  18. Data Driven

    Get 'er done, Harry. This rule change will address some of the dysfunction in Washington. Neither political party should be permitted to bring Constitutional business like Presidential appointments to an utter standstill. To liberals worried about this, in terms of the GOP taking back the Senate, I say: get off your duffs and vote for Democrats. Worrying accomplishes nothing. And if the GOP wins, so be it - Dem candidates failed to win the argument. What we cannot have is this continuing sclerotic dysfunction that is threatening the very foundation of our political institutions.

    By the way, Dana, it would've been nice if you could've reported on how many votes Harry actually has for this. Why do I constantly have to go elsewhere to get the actual news?

    November 21, 2013 09:33 am at 9:33 am |
  19. liberal disease

    At this point everything this administration does should be blocked, they have zero judgement and talent and care only about their agenda.

    November 21, 2013 09:33 am at 9:33 am |
  20. Matt

    Finally. The Democrats will hate this at some point in the future but it is better for the country.

    November 21, 2013 09:33 am at 9:33 am |
  21. acepaul

    Yah, typical democrat strategy. If you can't get what you want by following the rules, forget the rules...

    November 21, 2013 09:34 am at 9:34 am |
  22. A True Conservative

    Wow Harry – this is going to come back to bite Democrats......and you have no one to blame but yourselves......when Republican threatened this you Dems cried like when you are in control the rules are different.....Sooner or later the majority of Americans will wake up to your lies and tactics.....Obamacare is just the first step in doing that......this may be the second......

    November 21, 2013 09:35 am at 9:35 am |
  23. Jken

    Usually I don't like this type of manipulation, but if the shoe were on the other foot and democrats were blocking say, all of Bush's nominees...this law would have been gone years ago. The house changed rules just before the Shutdown to not allow democrats to introduce bills. The fact is there is no more civility left in government as, thanks to the Supreme Court, you get alot more campaign money by being at the far left and right and not negotiating and shutting down government on a whim.

    November 21, 2013 09:35 am at 9:35 am |
  24. Greg Krzyzanowski

    We are Rome. And Rome is burning..........

    November 21, 2013 09:35 am at 9:35 am |
  25. Rick McDaniel

    If Reid goes nuclear, then Obama should be impeached as a dictator, stealing the powers of Congress........because Obama is running the Senate.

    Additionally, Boehner should go nuclear as well.........and nothing should pass the Congress at all.

    November 21, 2013 09:35 am at 9:35 am |
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