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. nuclear mike

    We, the NRA, will not get you elected next time or is this the signal there is NO next time for you?

    November 21, 2013 11:44 am at 11:44 am |
  2. jim

    AlI can say is they are all clowns. If American's don't try and vote all the incuments out we are doomed!

    November 21, 2013 11:44 am at 11:44 am |
  3. jose 17

    About time, way to go Reed! Need to fight nasty with nasty, Reed finally will earn is nickname "Dirty Harry". Enough is enough!

    November 21, 2013 11:45 am at 11:45 am |
  4. Cynical

    Well, I do not think they should change the rules after 100's of years of it being part of the process. When the Repubs take back the Senate in 2014, or whenever the Dems will have to live with what they have created. Both parties have stayed away from the Nuclear option because they know they will someday be in the minority.
    Harry talks about the Repubs sitting on stuff he wants. How many bills have come to the Senate that never see the light of day because Harry deems them no good rather than an up or down vote by our elected officials.

    November 21, 2013 11:45 am at 11:45 am |
  5. Anonymous

    The senate minority won't always be Republican, so be careful what you wish for. The left might want to filibuster one day.

    November 21, 2013 11:45 am at 11:45 am |
  6. Bill

    Reid couldn't be bothered to pass a budget for years but not confirming nominees really gets his blood flowing!

    November 21, 2013 11:45 am at 11:45 am |
  7. ItSoNlYmE

    The Republicans have demonstrated over and over and over again that they have no interest in governing. Their only interests are in getting themselves reelected in their jerrymandered districts, and in blocking anything President Obama says, does, or wants. That isn't governing, it's obstructing. I'm 100% behind Senator Reid in this. Time to get off the mark and start doing the business of the nation instead of drawing their salaries and doing nothing.

    November 21, 2013 11:45 am at 11:45 am |
  8. ImvotingforHillary

    If the Rethugicans weren't so racist then this option wouldn't be needed. Instead of trying to work with President Obama they try to undermine himn at every turn. Not surprising since whiteshave been doing this to blacks for decades.

    November 21, 2013 11:45 am at 11:45 am |
  9. BO

    Leave it to the democrats to do everthing in their power to skirt, and minimize the US constitution. It is absolutely DISGRACEFUL.

    November 21, 2013 11:46 am at 11:46 am |
  10. cosmicc

    The filibuster exists because the Senate is supposed to be small enough that it's reasonable to allow discussion to go on as long as someone wants to speak on that topic. Why not change the rules to require that anyone engaged in a filibuster actually speak on the Senate floor and stay on topic and not repeat themselves. That way they can keep their power to debate an issue, but not be allowed to block a motion because of some unrelated issue.

    November 21, 2013 11:46 am at 11:46 am |
  11. Jim

    Am I the only one...that can't believe making the confirmation process a little easier requiring 51 votes rather than 60 is called a NUCLEAR OPTION!? How did we get to this point...CNN? When did we lose our sense of logic and reason to this level.. Please copy and paste this into your replies if you agree.

    November 21, 2013 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  12. Dave

    Reid's definition of a working government is that he gets his way all of the time.

    November 21, 2013 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  13. emck

    I find it somewhat comical when Republicans now decide that judicial nominees shouldn't have an "up or down vote" when it hasn't been that many years since they were screaming that it was a necessity.


    November 21, 2013 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  14. Wakeupamerica333

    Anything goes with these fools. Law of the land... No such thing

    November 21, 2013 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  15. bob baden

    The Republicans hate Americans apparently. It's about time someone did something to slap them around a bit.

    November 21, 2013 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  16. Tonda

    What a cry baby, both sides use it.

    November 21, 2013 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  17. Ryan in Texas

    Except then the House can go back to not funding Obamacare or other Democrat ideas.
    Two can play the "my way or the highway" game.
    Oh, and the option of nominating actual moderates that can pass the Senate without a filibuster being even considered – oh, no. Democrats never thought of that one.

    November 21, 2013 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  18. FireDown

    Here I thought they were breaking news about Iran/N. Korea and the Senate was invoking a nuclear option to strike them (pushing us further down the fear mongering road of nuclear war).

    With all the talk of nuclear concerns going on, isn't it a little careless for CNN to call this repeal of a filibuster "a nuclear option" ???

    November 21, 2013 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  19. BO

    Harry Reid has presided over $11 TRILLION in debt. Why is he still in the Senate?

    November 21, 2013 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  20. Anonymous

    "So with only 5 votes from a filibuster breaking ability. Sen. Reid's leadership is so poor that he has been unable to convince 5 Republican members that the nominees are right and should be confirmed, he needs to play the rule change option"

    No, it is that the Republican party (my party) has been so enslaved to the Tea Party minority that none of them are willing to actually vote their mind. I am not a fan of this "nuclear option" but I am also tired of obstructionist government. Get to work people!

    November 21, 2013 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
  21. Paul D

    The charts and graphs don't lie. The GOP use of filibuster to obstruct nominees has been HUGE and UNPRECEDENTED in American history. Democrats never did this, what the GOP has been doing now. They are jamming the wheels for every nominee including supremely qualified ones. They deserve this. Though it is sad because blowback could hurt if the GOP gets the upper hand in 2014 or 2016. But I don't see what choice Reid has, if this is the way today's GOP wants to conduct business. The filibuster used to be used with more restraint, now it's their immediate "go to" position no matter what, for any Democrat-appointed nominee. Sad all around.

    November 21, 2013 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
  22. Sniffit

    FACT: The GOP/Teatrolls' ridiculous abuse of the filibuster while a minority party is proof that they would go "nuclear" (probably immediately) if they ever took/take the majority in the Senate again. They are in "no holds barred" mode and have proven it for the past 5 years. Nothing is off limits to them. NOTHING.

    November 21, 2013 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
  23. Robert

    Reid clinches his late term abortion.

    November 21, 2013 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
  24. EncinoMan

    No party in American history has ever ABUSED the filibuster like the current republicans have. I also don't think you should be able to just state your intent to filibuster. If you mean to filibuster, then stand up there for twenty four hours and show that it means that much to you. Now, tea baggers can just say the word "filibuster" and can effectively shut down anything that they don't like (and unless something meets 100% to their fundamentalist views, the don't like it). It's sad that the nuclear option may go into effect, but it's already sad that the republicans are spitting on our democracy and the way it was designed to work. It's not ideal but it may be the only way to get around these domestic terrorists called republican obstructionists.

    November 21, 2013 11:49 am at 11:49 am |
  25. keltic1

    They can do as they please, but don NOT whine when the GOP has control of the Senate & is passing bills & vetting leadership positions with a 51 vote majority.

    November 21, 2013 11:49 am at 11:49 am |
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