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. Dan

    Reid is a disgrace. He doesn't get his way when he wants to jam things through the Senate so he throws a temper tantrum. He is virtually guaranteeing the Repubs take back the Senate in the fall

    November 21, 2013 12:01 pm at 12:01 pm |
  2. Dr Tom

    This is a new Republican Party; it is time the Dems recognize that. If these Reps ever get the majority in the Senate the 1st thing they will do, regardless of what the Dems do now, is eliminate the filibuster. I can't believe that anyone doesn't see that. If by some miracle the Dems keep the Senate and win back the House, then they should eliminate the filibuster for legislation, too. Then we can finally get something done.

    November 21, 2013 12:02 pm at 12:02 pm |
  3. Data Driven


    "I hope it passes. Come next November this will bite Reid in the foot and it will be wonderful."

    Finally, a conservative with at least one working lightbulb in the brain. Conservatives should be rooting for passage, of course, but they're so short-sighted that all they can think of is "stop-obama stop-obama stop-obama"

    What the rule-change means for conservatives: someday, when your guy is Prez and you have a majority in the Senate, your guy can appoint people whom he wants to appoint to federal positions. Just like the Constitution sez. It should be noted that the change does NOT mean "no filibuster, ever". It simple allows a 51-vote majority to carry through presidential appointments.

    Someday, it may work in your FAVOR, geniuses.

    November 21, 2013 12:02 pm at 12:02 pm |
  4. krivka

    Add to the "partisan divide"... Are you kidding me? Nobody can take that comment seriously. If anything, and yes I understand it will cut both ways, it will make things equal. The number of Ultra conservative sitting on the bench is almost unprecedented. This is political of course, but the courts are currently stacked with the most conservative picks imaginable. Do it Reid, no harm will come, you are not going to win any converts to the liberal side anyway. You might as well get something from this deal.

    November 21, 2013 12:02 pm at 12:02 pm |
  5. The Truth

    Mr. Reid better be careful what he wishes for ... because once the GOP retakes control of everything after what devastation Obama and the Dems have wrought on this country over the last five years, they will live in regret for a long time.

    November 21, 2013 12:02 pm at 12:02 pm |
  6. Larry

    Ah yes, another round of the popular Congressional mantra of "Let's compromise and do it OUR way." Doesn't matter who's in the majority – when the minority won't give in, let's pull our hair, gnash our teeth and rend our garments to look picked on, and say, "Those bad (insert minority party here). They're obstructing our work. We must change the rules." Doesn't matter who's in charge – read a little history. Dems and the GOP all pull the same crap.

    November 21, 2013 12:02 pm at 12:02 pm |
  7. iceload9

    Has someone ok'd this with Wall St?

    November 21, 2013 12:02 pm at 12:02 pm |
  8. Carl

    So now we have everyone in exactly the opposite position as the last time the words "nuclear option" were thrown about, and everyone is making exactly the opposite arguments. What a bunch of plonkers.

    November 21, 2013 12:02 pm at 12:02 pm |
  9. Pragmaclast

    It's too bad we can't see the comment history of all the Democrats here calling for the nuclear option. I bet we'd see a different opinion if we looked back a few years when the Republicans were threatening to do it.

    November 21, 2013 12:02 pm at 12:02 pm |
  10. floyd from illinois

    About four years too late.

    Personally, I admire Sen. Reid's ability to tolerate the childish atics of the Republicans. He should have put them in time out as soon as McConnell made his declaration, back in 2009.

    November 21, 2013 12:02 pm at 12:02 pm |
  11. John Books

    Both parties are a mess, but good for Reid. It's about time somebody did something to break all this gridlock crap. It has gotten far beyond the point of tolerance.

    November 21, 2013 12:03 pm at 12:03 pm |
  12. Reason

    hey heres an idea – dont vote republican or democrat next election.
    What? Real change too scary for you all?
    Well then be ready for more of the same and worse. You all like free market – well why dont you try giving a little competition to the power the 2 parties know they have because of you all for a change.

    November 21, 2013 12:03 pm at 12:03 pm |
  13. smiley jackson

    Just another angry little man.

    November 21, 2013 12:03 pm at 12:03 pm |
  14. george

    sounds very unamerican.

    November 21, 2013 12:03 pm at 12:03 pm |
  15. Doc

    Reid is a disgrace, just like a large portion of his colleagues on either side of the aisle.

    November 21, 2013 12:03 pm at 12:03 pm |
  16. MeanOldMan

    Reid may as well do it when he can. Anyone that has watched what has been happening in Republicans controlled states would know that if the Tea Party extremists ever do get control of the senate it will be one of the first things they do so they can ram their nonsense thru. I wish it hadn't gotten to this but whether you like him or not, Obama has the right to appoint who he wants. He won the election. A filibuster here and there is not a bad thing but the republicans since Obamas election have made a mockery of the entire process. You have people like Graham saying they are going to filibuster anyone and everyone till he gets what he wants on unrelated issues. This country is in big trouble and I have my doubts about how much longer it will last. The SCOTUS has done so much damage in the last few years that it would take generations to set things straight again. When you have a system where a few at the top can spend millions upon millions saying whatever they want with no opposition to get their way we have a major problem. When you have one party constantly looking for anyway possible to limit voting this is not the country we claim to the rest of the world, or to ourselves, to be. A country this divided against itself for the benefit of a very exclusive few can not stand for very long. Washington was right, the two party system will eventually destroy this country.

    November 21, 2013 12:04 pm at 12:04 pm |
  17. Timodeus

    Why doesn't this nation just split up? It's obvious we don't want to live next to each other, we don't like each other, and we don't respect each other. Just create 2 or 3 countries and split up nonviolently before it becomes a civil war.

    November 21, 2013 12:04 pm at 12:04 pm |
  18. Sniffit

    "The Dems could have fixed the problem at any time without changing laws that will someday come back to HAUNT them. "

    Please. Spare us the pretense that karma is involved here. The GOP/Teatrolls' behavior over the past 5 years is proof positive that they would get rid of the filibuster entirely if ever in the Senate majority again, REGARDLESS of whether the Dems had done this first.

    November 21, 2013 12:04 pm at 12:04 pm |
  19. luke,az

    Democrats are trying to move the country forward, while Republicans are trying to run out the clock. Republicans, puppets of big business, don't care about the middle class or the poor. What happened in the recent Virginia elections will happen to Republicans in 2014 all across this country.

    November 21, 2013 12:04 pm at 12:04 pm |
  20. SGT Rock

    When the shoe is on the other foot, Senator Reid (if he is still a senator) will bemoan the fact that Republicans are not allowing the Democrats to have a voice – sorta like what the Democrats are doing to the Republicans now. Reid wants everyone, including Republicans, to dance to HIS music and his music alone. If it ain't his viewpoint, then it ain't worth considering. Like his master, he is an egotistical blowhard with too much power in his grasp.

    I must question the sanity and MOTIVES of every Nevadan who voted for Reid. Thanks for nothing Nevada.

    November 21, 2013 12:04 pm at 12:04 pm |
  21. Whining

    The GOP brought this on themselves and now they are whining. Get over it!

    November 21, 2013 12:04 pm at 12:04 pm |
  22. TomGI

    "Reid moves toward invoking nuclear option in Senate"

    Oh, this sounds so ominous. Like Reid is some bad dude doing something hardcore. Reid is a wuss. His weapon is a pen and he is about as "invoking" as custard pudding.

    November 21, 2013 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  23. Brian Smith

    "This changes everything, this changes everything," Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, told reporters on Capitol Hill.
    Say it again, say it again! Early onset Alzheimers...

    November 21, 2013 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  24. anony

    The GOP keeps fighting because they know that this is their "end times." There is a certain faction of the Republican Party that will never let them embrace voters they need to get a majority of votes–blacks and hispanics–so they will do anything to try to keep what power they have.

    November 21, 2013 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  25. critical thinking

    Harry, pleaseeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee do it, consider it an early 2014 Christmas present to the republicans.

    November 21, 2013 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
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