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. Lewis

    I can't wait till this comes back to bite them after 2014.

    November 21, 2013 12:46 pm at 12:46 pm |
  2. Bill S.

    I do not like calling it " the nuclear option" with all the true nuclear threats in the world, we do not need to make this parallel with such military or terrorist threats. Language matters, especially in headline driven news. . This is a simple rule change, that can be changed by the Senate majority at any time. The change is not advisable because of precedent. Remember this day Democrats- someday you will be the minority again and you will want a little leverage in a more important legislative process and you will not get it. You will not like a nominee and you will have no negotiating leverage within the Senate or with the President to block it. Your about to use your Trump card for this nominee. I hope she is worth it.

    November 21, 2013 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  3. dc

    Almost half the country is not Democrat. NOW THEY HAVE NO VOICE. Shame on you, Harry!

    November 21, 2013 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  4. Dave

    Sad day for the USA

    November 21, 2013 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  5. Bocephus Moonshine

    It's about time. Filibustering should be work, not a formality. This was the case for the first 199 years of our (American) history.

    November 21, 2013 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  6. Enough is Enough

    Hey NameRoss – we don't live in a democracy – we live in a REPUBLIC – at least we did – you need to educate yourself regarding the differences! Ignorance on the part of voters is what is destroying this nation....but don't worry will keep getting your checks......

    November 21, 2013 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  7. texas

    Good, they should and probably needed to do it months ago.

    November 21, 2013 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  8. lilyq

    Well just looky there. Pass a new law or make a new rule to change whatever it is you don't like.

    November 21, 2013 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  9. pourmonamijc

    We the people? Really? Try We the lobbies.

    November 21, 2013 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  10. Mark L.

    Harry Reid should have dropped the "F" Bomb on the GOP vs. going nuclear...LOL...

    November 21, 2013 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  11. 866bway

    It's a fairly statesman-like act for one party to vote to let the next president, regardless of party, shape the judiciary as they see fit. The Dems just get first crack at this bc they won the last election, which is as it should be. This is hardly the power grab McConnell and folks here are whining about.

    November 21, 2013 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  12. dc

    'Way to nuke the country, Harry.

    November 21, 2013 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  13. alfy

    if the President nominated middle of the road candidates that everyone could agree on instead of extreme left progressives he might get some of these positions filled

    November 21, 2013 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  14. Graeme from Ottawa

    Republicans don't know how to be a minority party, if they aren't in charge they tip the board, throw temper tantrums and run around like chicken little. Nuke em Harry.

    November 21, 2013 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  15. DarqueSide

    Oh my... this is going to get interesting.

    November 21, 2013 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  16. Kyle_n_NC

    Eat it republicants.. You deserve to be treated like obstructionist children and soundly thrashed. The republicants need to be treated like they treat 1/2 of enemy.

    November 21, 2013 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  17. jinx9to88

    Love it!!!!! Cry all you want GOP followers, if the GOP wasn't the party of "NO" and more like a party of "MAYBE" Reid wouldn't have done it. The GOP mind is always made up way before anything is brought to the floor for a vote.

    November 21, 2013 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  18. ShawnDH


    Democracy in action, obstruction loses. The will of the people who elected Obama will NOT be ignored. Thank you Harry!

    November 21, 2013 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  19. mike

    Me thinks they (Dem House representatives and senators) know they are in trouble in 2014 elections due to gun-control, obamacare, and all the scandals going on. So, short term, they are going to try and cram in as much of their agenda via force now, and (when they are in the minority) do a good job of crying about the mean republicans not being fair by using simple majority to pass legislation.

    November 21, 2013 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  20. styx

    If any of the appointees fail, the dems own them just like they own Obamacare.

    November 21, 2013 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  21. DustyOnes

    This will "Blow Up" in his face come 2015.

    November 21, 2013 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  22. Darrell

    Finally the Dems grow a backbone for the good of the country.


    November 21, 2013 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  23. Rudy NYC

    In 2005, the then majority Repubicans 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.
    Oh yeh, that's right. Republicans were upset because Democrats had filibustered one Bush's picks for the Supreme Court. Bush had picked his current White House Counsel for the Supreme Court. Talk about stacking the courts.

    November 21, 2013 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  24. ItSoNlYmE

    "GOP bitterly opposes change" – that may well be the understatement of the millennium. Hooray for Senator Reid! Now maybe the Senate can actually get some work done.

    November 21, 2013 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  25. cut2it

    No reason to be too upset they will change in back right before they lose control. Along with a rules change that won't allow any future nuclear options. Smart, very smart. No need for the opposition party to show up any more ... ever regarding nominees.

    November 21, 2013 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
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