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. D Webb

    I am so tired of the lack of work coming out of Washington - I think the whole idea of Congress needs to be re-thought - the constant bickering and lack of movement on some of these nominees - some who have been on hold for YEARS is ridiculous. The nominees need to be looked at for what they are being put up for, NOT Obamacare or anything else that people want to get rid of. As far as I can tell, not much has been done in the last few years since Congress was split - not much except arguments that remind me of the elementary school playground.....GROW UP and do the jobs we sent you to Washington to do, NOT the jobs the lobbyists putting money in your pockets want you to do - I say, THROW THEM ALL OUT!!!!! Term limits should be in place for Congress - that would take care of some of this, because they wouldn't all be worried about re-election to the detriment of the American public.

    November 21, 2013 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  2. b

    Thats what republicans get for oppressing the poor with their 2005 bankruptcy change that makes student loans a life sentence no matter how poor a person becomes.

    November 21, 2013 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  3. katmoondaddy

    While everyone rags on the Republicans, the New Left is coming up from the rear claiming it's territory in Washington. America, as we've known it, will disappear and the government will be in charge of all our affairs.

    November 21, 2013 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  4. MNClownfactory

    This is sad that Reid feels he has to do take this step. I do not disagree thought. The number of nominee appointments left sitting without even a vote is stunning. It is abuse of the senate and I agree Americans should stand together to stop this kind of political one upman ship that seems to take place. This new breed of Tea Publicans have ruined our country. They hate government and will do everything in their power to bring Washington down. Many are political terrorists if you ask me.

    November 21, 2013 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  5. dsmith

    Everyone is so quick to blame the republicans for the shutdown because of their opposition to Obamacare. Now that we are feeling the affects of the Dems Obamacare everyone shold be applauding republicans for standing against these policies.

    November 21, 2013 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  6. wpp105

    This is not a big deal. Republicans in the house have twisted all the rules there in their favor. Like when they amended the house rules so only Majority Leader Eric Cantor can propose legislation to open the government during the shutdown.

    November 21, 2013 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  7. rtkmd

    "The beauty of the way the Senate works, as opposed to the House, is that the minority has more power." Beauty? Say what? However, it is unfortunate that Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin, et al. failed to support real filibuster reform at the more appropriate time for rule establishment by the "Constitutional option," the opening of the Senate. But late and dirty is perhaps better than never.

    November 21, 2013 11:41 am at 11:41 am |
  8. Patrish

    Thanks Republicans for make our lives miserable and now we will change the rules so maybe you will learn to work as a team for country. Of course when (if we ever) get a Republican president the Democrats will be on the receiving end, but that is politics. I get a kick of Harry Reid he always speaks in the that soft voice – but then.....

    November 21, 2013 11:41 am at 11:41 am |
  9. JHS

    That is usually a sign of a poor sport. When you can't win, let's change the rules to make it more favourable.
    That way when you still can't win, you can cry racist or foul. Bunch of Babies.

    November 21, 2013 11:41 am at 11:41 am |
  10. El Lobo

    Kick there collective ares Harry, teach the republicscum stooges government by obstructionism is over!

    November 21, 2013 11:41 am at 11:41 am |
  11. El Lobo

    Kick there collective ares Harry, teach the republicscum stooges government by tryanny is over!

    November 21, 2013 11:42 am at 11:42 am |
  12. Chuckles

    Let me guess: if the Democrats loses the majority in the Senate down the road, the last thing they do as they surrender power would be to reverse this rule.

    November 21, 2013 11:42 am at 11:42 am |
  13. Steve

    I wasn't a fan of this but we all have to agree we need our Government to work again. Yes the Republicans will be able to use this in the future but honestly I would rather have that happen than continual log jam of essentially everything. The goal is to get work done not constantly position one's self for re-election. That applies to everyone.

    November 21, 2013 11:42 am at 11:42 am |
  14. dsmith

    Of course they can use the nuclear option now, Repubs will be able to justify using it next year when they impeach the liar in chief!

    November 21, 2013 11:43 am at 11:43 am |
  15. harrisonhits2

    Every member of congress of both parties is utterly and hopelessly corrupt. Make no mistake their only goal is to service their own enormous greed and that of their corporate owners. The commit treason on a daily basis selling the country out and deserve the traditional punishment for treason.

    November 21, 2013 11:43 am at 11:43 am |
  16. McRCN

    Sounds more like Reid has come to the conclusion with the ObamaCare fiasco, Democrats are likely to lose the Senate and the House. Therefore, he needs to make this radical move to get what he can before he loses his powers over the Senate.

    November 21, 2013 11:43 am at 11:43 am |
  17. Joe Casey

    Didn't the Democrats learn from Obamacare, that when it comes to legislation, that it's better to have a consensus and to not go it alone.

    November 21, 2013 11:43 am at 11:43 am |
  18. RangerDOS

    I'm a registered Democrat, but after this I won't be. The party is becoming a leftist party resembling Communism. These are the tactics of a dictatorship, quelling descent by curbing the minorities voice. The question is where does it end? Soon other rules will be bent by this leadership in favor of extreme liberalism which has now become a euphemism for Communist Socialist ideologies. The rest of you sheep can keep following these leaders until they drag this county into the ground, go ahead and see how far your convictions go once your civil rights start being changed for the good of the party.

    November 21, 2013 11:43 am at 11:43 am |
  19. GP

    The Reichstag is burning! Change the writing on the barn wall! Emergency! Crisis! the sky is falling! Wolf! Anyone who thinks this move is needed is willing to be ruled. Is asking for and desires the absolute abuse of power. When anti-gay marriage amendments and anti environmental rules are on the block we will see how many on the liberal side think this is a good idea. but then again maybe this is about consolidating and holding power not some high minded ideal of fairness.

    November 21, 2013 11:43 am at 11:43 am |
  20. Bob

    So basically this gives the president carte blanche to appoint Hitler or whomever he wants to his positions. Disgusting. He has appointed lots of VERY extreme leftists. The people being blocked are not centrist or even just liberal. They are EXTREME.

    November 21, 2013 11:43 am at 11:43 am |
  21. Chuk

    This rules change is so overdue. This "superpower" is fast becoming the laughing stock of the world – through self-inflicted wounds. I don't know how many countries are clamoring to adopt this brand of "democracy" after witnessing this ongoing debacle. Unfortunate.

    November 21, 2013 11:43 am at 11:43 am |
  22. Tom1940

    With there being a "greater than 60/40 chance) in the mid-term election that Republicans will take back the Senate and House, I doubt Senator Reid is anxious for the "nuclear option" will be exercised by the Senate to change the rules any time soon. With good chance that he will become the "Minority Leader" in the Senate, he will want all of his options open. That includes keeping the rules of the Senate on Filibuster just as they are. He's going to need all the help his party can use after the next election.

    November 21, 2013 11:43 am at 11:43 am |
  23. Michael

    The abuse of the Filibusterer has made the Senate ineffective. Let's get rid of it and start again please.

    November 21, 2013 11:44 am at 11:44 am |
  24. El Lobo

    Do it Harry, what else can go wrong.

    November 21, 2013 11:44 am at 11:44 am |
  25. StormySyndrome

    Man who takes power from his people, begins to take power from himself. Man just can't help himself, he wants all the power to're now seeing those who take rights and power, attempt to make moves to take power from themselves.

    November 21, 2013 11:44 am at 11:44 am |
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