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. Bhawk

    Put a time limit on the filibuster rule suspension–2 yrs.

    November 21, 2013 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  2. Median

    I was hoping the Nuclear option involved putting everyone who currently works in the senate or the house into a nuclear Reactor or at least fired them all for their incompetence, but no it is just another power struggle between the worst corporations in the U.S. the republicants and democraps.

    November 21, 2013 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  3. Sharon

    I support this because the entire Congress is refusing to do their jobs. The Senate is a good place to start. We should do the same in the House.

    November 21, 2013 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  4. JokeofaPresident

    The funny thing is the folks that will hate this most is Democrats when they are not in majority. These people are insane and will bring this country down.

    November 21, 2013 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  5. DaveinIL

    One day the Democrats will be in the minority and rue the day they changed the filibuster rules. The American people have seen the results of purely partisan action in the train wreck that is Obamacare. The means are never justified by the end in politics.

    November 21, 2013 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  6. ShawnDH

    Lewis cried: "I can't wait till this comes back to bite them after 2014."

    Sure it will. Just like Republicans won in 2012. You sure were fake confident then, too. Will you ever learn? America hates Republicans and everything you stand for. How'd that whole government shut down work out for ya?

    November 21, 2013 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  7. Kris

    i agree with Sue, the only way any of this debacle in government will change is to vote them all out. They just move the herd back and forth. Take away their job. All of them.

    November 21, 2013 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  8. bill Davis

    They pushed through Obamacare, and many other bad decisions. but hey we can live with it...

    Lower your standards, and you can stomach anything...

    November 21, 2013 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  9. darknesscrown


    Demos were pretty confident about Obamacrae. I suspect Reid is pretty confident about taking the gloves off. Always easy to throw the first punch Harry, be sure you can take a punch too, because the midterms are coming up."

    Actually, the Republicans took the gloves off when they found it completely unacceptable that a black Democrat kicked their teeth in at the polls in 2008 (then again in 2012). They've been doing absolutely everything out of spite since then.

    November 21, 2013 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  10. RC

    Everyone who is cheering this..... remember how happy you are and who is responsible when the Republicans get the majority in the Senate.

    Any complaints of heavy handedness, the need for bipartisanship and all of the other garbage that is whined about when Dems don't have their way will truely ring hollow.

    November 21, 2013 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  11. pourmonamijc

    We the people? Really? More like We the lobbies.

    November 21, 2013 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  12. B

    I can't wait for republicans to take back the senate. only 1 more year. its going to be fun watching the democrats freak out when they can't filibuster. LOL thank you Reid.

    November 21, 2013 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  13. WV Gleeman

    Good. The Repubs should have done this back when the Dems were obstructing all the GWB nominations. There is a time for a fillibuster and a time to go about their real jobs.

    November 21, 2013 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  14. RobertM

    A 'nuclear tool' is going to silence portion of the population and is a step towards fascism.

    November 21, 2013 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  15. joe

    It's time to get rid of the filibuster altogether, along with the "hold" option. No more obstructionism by any senator of any party or no party, for any reason.

    November 21, 2013 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  16. Pete de Pete

    So it is ok for the House to follow the Hastert Rule ( Bills can only come to the floor for a vote if it supported by the majority in the majority conference) hence we have had stalled legislations in the house because the tealiban does not like it. Reed, you did the right thing. Going nuclear was the only option. Fight fire with fire. Why is it that dems have to always play nice and Repugs have to be aggressive? Enough with this double standard. You congress men and senators were sent to congress to solve problems not create them.

    November 21, 2013 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  17. al

    Sorry low class dems at it again just like their daddy Obama. Change the rules to fit your perverted agenda!!!!

    November 21, 2013 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  18. Malachi

    This is the result of political impetence driven by shortsided utiliatrian idealism. In lay terms- It's my ball and I am going home.

    November 21, 2013 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  19. nuclear mike

    Goodbye Democrats as you go down in the bonfire of your own making!!!

    November 21, 2013 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  20. Concerned Educator, Mississippi

    Way to go, Reid! Maybe now we can get some nominees appointed.

    November 21, 2013 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  21. RC

    Figures that Harry has to change the rules when things aren't going his way.

    All I have to say is that Karma is a _______.

    November 21, 2013 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  22. Mike

    AWESOME! Its about time!

    November 21, 2013 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  23. Paul

    Ironically the Democrats blocked Bush's judicial appointments too. Short memory.

    November 21, 2013 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  24. Lynne Schendel

    OMG It is about time! These fool republicans in the house have been doing nothing but obstructing, blocking, and standing in the way of everything. Over 400 filibusters! Lyndon Johnson had ONE. Way to go, Harry.

    November 21, 2013 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  25. ConstAdvocate

    Gotta change the rules so that political appointees can get through, but can't bring the Upton Bill to the floor? Harry is getting ready to force another government shutdown. Probably wants to blame the Republicans again. But Obamacare is going to have a far greater impact on Americans and the Dems will be eating dirt in 2014.

    November 21, 2013 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
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