November 21st, 2013
09:17 AM ET
8 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. daniel

    LOL- they will be screaming when the GOP is the majority in the future. What a short sighted group of buffoons.

    November 21, 2013 12:54 pm at 12:54 pm |

    Desperate times cause for desperate measures. No one really wants to change the rules but if the other side is being straight up ridicous then something has to give. Hopefully, the republicans repent from their evil ways and work with the President to make things better. That's how yuou win favor. Forget about fighting. Right now the grand ole party is too evil minded to be right.

    November 21, 2013 12:55 pm at 12:55 pm |
  3. RC

    Harry wants to speed things up??? Why? So they can cram through terrible legislation like they did with Obamacare?

    Remember, these are the same people that said that you have to pass the legislation to see what it is it....

    November 21, 2013 12:55 pm at 12:55 pm |
  4. Morys

    I have never seen so much waste of time and resources like in this group of people (congress, senate, house of representatives, speakers, etc); the system that we have doesn't work when people are mentally unbalanced.

    November 21, 2013 12:55 pm at 12:55 pm |
  5. Lee S

    Sounds kinda like what Maduro is doing in Venezuela.

    November 21, 2013 12:55 pm at 12:55 pm |
  6. DE Guy

    This will NOT bite Dems in 2014 as we will win back control of the House then and we will easily maintain control of the Senate.

    The GOP is pretty much obsolete...except to old white men. And thankfully these old white men are starting to die off, which means they won't be around to screw our country up and hold us back anymore from progress.

    People under 40 almost always support the Democratic Party – primarily over social issues (climate change, gay marriage, pot legalization, etc.). Until the GOP learns to liberalize on social issues, they're going NOWHERE.

    Time to bring the Green Party up as a replacement for our two party system.

    – A young white male liberal

    November 21, 2013 12:55 pm at 12:55 pm |
  7. Godfrey C

    Harry Reid needs to go.

    November 21, 2013 12:55 pm at 12:55 pm |
  8. Chris Salzmann

    They should have done this YEARS ago.

    November 21, 2013 12:55 pm at 12:55 pm |
  9. Mary1972

    They basically told the GOP "Enough is enough". You can only work with people if they have an inclination to work with you.

    November 21, 2013 12:55 pm at 12:55 pm |
  10. David Powell

    Sorry Mr. Smith, you can't filibuster, the Machine got teh rules changed on you. Not a good way to end the movie, huh?

    November 21, 2013 12:55 pm at 12:55 pm |
  11. Ben

    Wow, some of you are delusional, like the people who claim the economy has moved forward. It still sucks, and it's getting worse, and that's because of Democrat policies, not Bush over half a decade ago.

    November 21, 2013 12:55 pm at 12:55 pm |
  12. Live4Him

    They will enjoy the new rules for the next 13 months. Then, they will hate it for the next 48 months. Additionally, the Republicans will change the rules even for Supreme Court nominees.

    November 21, 2013 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  13. boyamidumb


    it is time for serious change.

    A system works ONLY if it can acknowledge and respond to the changes required to meet new demands.

    George Washington saw what the two party system would do to this country and warned about it.


    The politicians, bought and paid for, will not do it. They simply want to protect their power and their income.

    YOU and I have to change it. But first we must stop letting them divide us with nonsensical non-issues. That is their power.



    November 21, 2013 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  14. militarymom777

    Sorry to see this is one sided. Looks like we are on our way to tyrants being in our government to control the people. I am a democrat and to see that agenda's are more important than standing by the rules that have worked before is just appalling. Our government is out of control and only the people can stop this. This is very dangerous to our country

    November 21, 2013 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  15. cedwardg

    Doesn't Reid know how obsolete he already is?

    November 21, 2013 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  16. Brian from Denver

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

    What's going to bite them? Democracy?

    Republicans have gone to the well once too often with their hatred for America's first black President. They've been on a tear to negate, obfuscate, repeal and deny every single decision, victory, success or progress proposed or enacted by this President. They have orchestrated every roadblock possible to keep Americans from getting real health care reform and the Senate is now sick of it. They vote to take food stamps from poor people and whine when they can't get another tax break for their rich friends.

    Americans are sick of it, too. This should have been done five years ago. Good! Now confirm the 160 appointees that had been blocked and let's get government moving again!

    November 21, 2013 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  17. Carter

    Democrats are so desperate they are taking away the rights of the minority. This will bite them in the butt when they are in the minority in 2014. Obamacare's massive failure is getting to them it looks like....

    November 21, 2013 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  18. Hippies get a job

    Time for Dingy Harry to jam something down the throat of the American people that doesn't work.

    November 21, 2013 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  19. ztarbod

    A sad day for the USA. There are good reasons not to permit the majority to trample on the minority. Cooperation and compromise are part of our government, but now we have polarization taking over thanks to the democrats. The vitriol has been building since democrats lost the House and Senate in 1994, the loss of Presidency in 2000 just poured gasoline on the fire.

    November 21, 2013 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  20. mannyspaz

    The Democrats need this because Harry Reid can't manage his way out of a paper bag. Now we'll see what happens when the Republicans take back the Senate.

    November 21, 2013 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  21. Jesse

    If Obama were white WAIT he is, he is half white stop with the race tactics and grow up.

    November 21, 2013 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  22. Liberal Conservative

    And they blame the repubs for lack of bi partanship.

    November 21, 2013 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  23. mogran

    Dems will seriously regret this one...payback will be swift and consistent

    November 21, 2013 12:57 pm at 12:57 pm |
  24. frankieworks

    The Midterms are going to be a bloodbath for these lying Democrats. Americans are fed up with the lies upon lies all for the greater good of society! They have now shown their true colors and it's all about control of you and me! Talk about taking peoples right to choose away! Oblammercare will be the downfall of the Demoncratic party... can't wait for the midterms!

    November 21, 2013 12:57 pm at 12:57 pm |
  25. Tampa Tim

    Lewis, don't wish your life away.

    November 21, 2013 12:57 pm at 12:57 pm |
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