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. mah29

    Every action has a reaction. This is the reaction to the GOP shutting down the gov't and Ted Cruz reading Dr. Seuss.

    November 21, 2013 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  2. JimsOutlook

    Excellent! Way to go Sen. Harry Reid.

    November 21, 2013 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  3. jinx9to88

    I have read a lot of comments on here stating "when the GOP takes the Senate back in 2014" Well the last couple of races wasn't the case was it? GOP lost a Virginia race against a Dem that should have lost big. Demographics has changed in favor of the DEMS, why do think the GOP and Karl Rove gerrymandered districts in 2010?

    November 21, 2013 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  4. Bocephus Moonshine

    I love how all these conservative "strict constructionists" who think we should do things the way they were done in 1800 change their tune when we turn back the clock on the filibuster. If we did things the way the founding fathers did, filibustering would mean standing up and speaking and not just casting a vote.

    November 21, 2013 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  5. GOP cry babies hate change!

    If the GOP hadn't ABUSED THE FILIBUSTER , we wouldn't have to do this!

    Well, see what happens when YOU ( GOP) try to play DICTATOR!!!!????


    November 21, 2013 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  6. Peach

    Reid : "Why should I care about someone that has cancer"--- remember that. Time for another CAT scan Harry.

    November 21, 2013 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  7. MIchael

    I love Reid's comment about "its time to get the senate working again" when the heck has our government actually worked in the past 15 years or so??? Reid need to pull his head out of the sand same goes for all the other slackers.

    November 21, 2013 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  8. TKO

    To all those who are now waiting for the "other shoe to drop," i.e., waiting for the Dems to suffer the consequences in 2014–well, the Dems will keep the Senate in 2014, and god willing, will wrap up the House as well.

    November 21, 2013 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  9. darknesscrown


    Good timing for Harry Reid, given that the Democrats are doomed to lose the Senate next year thanks to ObamaDoesn'tCare, the Unaffordable Care Act. I guess this will let them get a few judges installed before the GOP takeover though."
    Everyone who didn't have insurance before isn't complaining about the premiums. It's only the people who HAD insurance and saw their premiums go up....which is only 3% of the INSURED population so far. Thanks for playing though, kiddo.

    November 21, 2013 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  10. middleclassguy

    Seems fair, but just make sure there are no complaints when the shoe is on the other foot

    November 21, 2013 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  11. Big Al

    You can thank the Tea Baggers. If they hadn't nominated Sharon Angle, Reid would be long gone.

    The Republican Party.........................PARTY OF STUPID!


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

    So, once again, the Dems exhibit their tendency toward tyranny.

    November 21, 2013 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  13. tylor2

    Just what's needed, a puch towards more dvision in this messed up system.

    November 21, 2013 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  14. spudnik56

    About time...

    November 21, 2013 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  15. Eric

    Well, what goes around comes around. I sincerely hope that they rue this day some day, that will certainly be my advice when the worm turns as it always does.

    November 21, 2013 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  16. Scott Carey

    Good for them. This Pacifism of the Republicans is not working.......I don't remember George Bushes 8 years having these kinds of problems.....he just did what he wanted.....and so should the Democrats.They are not going work with you Mr.President......they never wanted's time to lead

    November 21, 2013 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  17. Blue Senate

    Go for it.McConnell is not even using the filibuster for the sake of democracy anymore.It is all about making sure nothing gets done

    November 21, 2013 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  18. ShawnDH

    Ahhhh, I love Republican tears of impotent rage. They are delicious. Drink up! There's plenty more.

    November 21, 2013 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  19. llmoss

    It's the perfect storm. Democrats just keep giving. I wonder how many Democrats will be running away from this new mess Obama is cooking up.

    November 21, 2013 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  20. Gmen

    Kiss any joint legislation with the House good bye starting with immigration reform. This is an utterly stupid legislative trick to gain the upper hand. This is not an example of leadership, but another attempt at dictatorship by whatever is party in power. The problem of getting political appointees approved is a problem for every administration. The American people are speaking loudly recently. Less than 40% of Americans trust the President. The nominees have been selected by a man they do not trust, yet the Senate wants to put the pedal to the medal and approve these individuals. Go figure.

    November 21, 2013 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  21. boyamidumb

    Very tired of partisan politics serving only to the advantage of the politicians and the companies that own them. George Washington was exactly right about what the two party system would do to this country.

    IT IS TIME FOR SERIOUS CHANGE. For a system to work it has to see its flaws and correct them. That is for you and me to do, but first we have to stop letting them divide us. That is how they stay in control.


    November 21, 2013 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  22. Nancy

    Democrats lean towards Communism.

    November 21, 2013 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  23. randro

    I thought Lyin' King said...'if you like your filibuster, you can keep your filibuster. Period'.

    November 21, 2013 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  24. doh

    It is about time

    November 21, 2013 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  25. RC

    Between the Nuke option here and the Ram Job that they did by shutting out the Republicans during the 1st two Obama years.... the Democrats are going to suffer in the years to come.

    November 21, 2013 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
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