November 21st, 2013
09:17 AM ET
8 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. carlos

    Wake up America. The power grabs are increasing, and by the "open" and "transparent" administration that was supposed to be better. Its only gonna get worse unless we stop it.

    November 21, 2013 07:54 pm at 7:54 pm |
  2. jn122736

    Republicans have been doing everything in their power to prevent ANY legislation being passed. Remember, their stated goal from the start was to make Obama a one term president?
    Since that failed they have doubled their efforts to obstruct; even to the point of shutting down the government.
    November 21, 2013 05:56 pm at 5:56 pm |

    November 21, 2013 07:55 pm at 7:55 pm |
  3. We will see

    It will be interesting to see if the Democrats think this is a great idea when they are they minority ... And if the Republicans think it is a good idea when they have the power.

    November 21, 2013 07:56 pm at 7:56 pm |
  4. Merle McClung

    There have been 23 filibusters in history in the Senate over judicial and executive nominations – and 20 of them have happened while Obama has been in the White House.
    There is absolutely no reason for this constant irrational obstructionism by Republicans but one – and we all know what it is.

    November 21, 2013 07:59 pm at 7:59 pm |
  5. belinda

    It's a disgraceful effort on the part of the GOP, to continue their War against our President. They don't care about struggling American families. It's all about fighting and pandering, for Corporate Special interests. They want to use our tax money that should be going towards food stamps, housing and the homeless, which includes Vets. Instead, it's being redirected to help Corporations, continue their plundering of our tax code. The middle class should be outraged.

    November 21, 2013 08:04 pm at 8:04 pm |
  6. walt

    Just another nail in the coffin of our republic. In a few years Obama will move to eliminate term limits and become El presidente for life. And Harry Reid will probably be his gestapo chief.

    November 21, 2013 08:09 pm at 8:09 pm |
  7. Jim

    As an independent I am appalled at the childish antics of the senate democrats. Do they think they will hold the majority forever? They opened up Pandora's box and what goes around comes around. Dems should enjoy their temporary victory because it probably will cost them far more in the future. If you cannot beat them change the rules!

    November 21, 2013 08:21 pm at 8:21 pm |
  8. Rich

    This is a good move. The use of the filibuster is beyond out of hand.

    November 21, 2013 08:24 pm at 8:24 pm |
  9. rasPutin

    When you abuse a power as the GfOxP has abused the filibuster, you risk losing that power. And that is precisely what happened.
    That's not to say that a real filibuster has actually been used by the GfOxP. It seems both sides agreed long ago that just saying, 'I will filibuster' is enough to permanently block a bill or appointment, creating gridlock.
    A better method would have been to say, "Okay, if you want to filibuster, let's see you stand there talking."

    November 21, 2013 08:24 pm at 8:24 pm |
  10. afa7336

    I wonder if the Democrats are ready and willing to regret this in the future. What would score points, I think, would be the Republicans at its earliest chance NOT using it, but changing it back.

    November 21, 2013 08:24 pm at 8:24 pm |
  11. brian

    I was against the nuclear option before I was for it...
    President Obama

    November 21, 2013 08:25 pm at 8:25 pm |
  12. Ruth

    seems obama only likes something when it helps him.....need I say more....when he was senator ,he said no way....I guess he needs to go to the time out chair

    November 21, 2013 08:28 pm at 8:28 pm |
  13. Evelyn Connaway

    Thank God, they finally put a stop to the filibustering of the GOP party of NO to everything. In the history of our presidents, there was ONLY 86 filibusters of federal judges and administrative cabinet appointees, and 82 during President Obama's term in office. What a pitiful shame on republicans who call themselves representatives of the people and our country.
    They represent only the rich, 1%, corporations and their donors, who aren't real Americans anyway. They are a bunch
    of Avarice ridden criminals.

    November 21, 2013 08:35 pm at 8:35 pm |
  14. Grwohio

    One more step in the ongoing race to the bottom. I wish we could throw all 535 congress members out and start over.

    November 21, 2013 08:35 pm at 8:35 pm |
  15. meki60

    Obama is the most useless pres in the world

    November 21, 2013 08:39 pm at 8:39 pm |
  16. Jeff

    Seeing that the GOP in this administration has filibustered more nominations than all others senate minorities in the history of the nation combined, I would say the Dems' hands were forced. As far as the Dems regretting this when they lose the senate. 1st, the GOP has 1 one general election in the last 20 years, Since the senate is immune to filibustering and the demographics moving further away from the GOP It seems like a safe bet that the GOP will not be in controll of the senate much more in the future. More importantly, in order for Dems to regret this you would have to assume the GOP wouldn't have used the nuclear option as soon as they got into power regardless if the Dems had done it first or not. Given the behavior of the GOP lately it is very likely they would have done it as soon as they became the majority.

    November 21, 2013 08:47 pm at 8:47 pm |
  17. Jim

    Majority rule? In a democracy? How novel.

    November 21, 2013 08:51 pm at 8:51 pm |
  18. Pendulum

    At first I was a democrat. Then I became a Republican. Finally I have become disgusted. Consider the actions of a pendulum. Where we as a country were relatively balanced years ago, with minor movements around the center of balance, today we have reached a point where each shocking and blatantly selfish act by each of the parties is causing the pendulum to swing wildly from end to end. In each election, a hopelessly confused, shocked and angry electorate is desperately trying to find equilibrium by going from one end to the next, by voting one party in, then the other. And the democrats and republicans alike, arrogantly misinterpret the mandate to assume extreme power. It tears my heart to see my great country destroyed like this. I came to this country as a very young man, as a foreigner, and I would like to leave this life knowing that I have left this country a better place for my kids. I have little hope that either party will let me fulfill my dream.

    November 21, 2013 08:52 pm at 8:52 pm |
  19. Anonymous

    I sense that talk of the nuclear option is more about power than about fairness. I believe some of my colleagues propose this rules change because they believe they can get away with it rather than because they know it’s good for our democracy.

    November 21, 2013 08:54 pm at 8:54 pm |
  20. Bob N L.A.

    Well, with 82 filibusters during the Obama administration and a total of 86 for all other presidents combined, obviously this is long overdue. The threats from McCain and McConnell are just proof that they have no control over their party as senior members of the Senate.

    November 21, 2013 08:55 pm at 8:55 pm |
  21. Carolo

    It's pretty bad that in all of history, the filibuster was used just 168 times but half of those were in the last 4 years for Obama alone. The abuse of the filibuster by a bunch of babies has brought us to this day.

    November 21, 2013 08:56 pm at 8:56 pm |
  22. TheSadTruth

    Anyone who protests the removal of fillibustering as a tactic is a lowlife hypocrite. This sad tradition serves no purpose except to waste the time and money of taxpayers for partisan reasons.

    November 21, 2013 08:56 pm at 8:56 pm |
  23. mutantsubhuman

    The next thing that Obama will do is declare a national emergency and suspend all civil liberties. There will be no new elections until the national emergency is declared over by Obama. Guns will be confiscated. Republicans will be put on trial. All vacancies will be hand selected by Obama.

    November 21, 2013 08:56 pm at 8:56 pm |
  24. mutantsubhuman

    Just like voting on something without reading it; now voting on something without discussing it.

    November 21, 2013 08:57 pm at 8:57 pm |
  25. Zondar

    Just remember.... you asked for this, Democrats.

    November 21, 2013 08:57 pm at 8:57 pm |
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