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. Gabbo

    Liberals must be so proud to have Harry Reid represent them. What a worm.

    November 21, 2013 12:58 pm at 12:58 pm |
  2. quieteye

    Its far past time to make the filibuster a physical act it once was, not a phone in threat.

    November 21, 2013 12:58 pm at 12:58 pm |
  3. fed up

    Harry is the biggest hypocrite of them all

    November 21, 2013 12:58 pm at 12:58 pm |
  4. ubdumb

    One more shortsighted step towards the failure of a once great democracy. Can we please vote the commies out soon

    November 21, 2013 12:58 pm at 12:58 pm |
  5. Jim

    Yes! Thank you democrats! Finally growing a spine and doing what you have to do to move the country forward, thank you! I sincerely thank you!

    Am I the only one...that can't believe making the confirmation process a little easier requiring 51 votes rather than 60 is called a NUCLEAR OPTION!? How did we get to this point...CNN? When did we lose our sense of logic and reason to this level.. Please copy and paste this into your replies if you agree.

    November 21, 2013 12:58 pm at 12:58 pm |
  6. Michael B

    Reid will go down as one of the worst Senate leaders in history. Shame on you, Senator Reid, and shame on those Senators who voted in favor. Have fun when the shoe is on the other foot.

    November 21, 2013 12:58 pm at 12:58 pm |
  7. GOP Sucks

    Let's be honest. If Republicans were in the majority, they would have done this years ago.

    November 21, 2013 12:58 pm at 12:58 pm |
  8. Fred Wright

    Sadly, it has come to the nuclear option. Sen. Reid should have opten in several years ago. The Republicans gave the Democrats no good reason to do otherwise. I'm happy to see the day.

    November 21, 2013 12:58 pm at 12:58 pm |
  9. drcid777

    The Republicans refused to allow a vote even though the reason for the conservative majority in the court that led to this standoff is because Democrats allowed a votes on Bush Jr's nominees. This is the no compromise, all or nothing agenda that the Tea Party has brought to the Republicans.

    November 21, 2013 12:58 pm at 12:58 pm |
  10. Richard Miller

    If this is what it takes to get this country moving in the right direction, then hooray for growing a set of you know whats!It should have been done a long time ago.

    November 21, 2013 12:59 pm at 12:59 pm |
  11. Carl

    Every single one of these twits, Dems and Reps alike, need to be removed from office and we start over. This is absolutely embarassing.

    November 21, 2013 12:59 pm at 12:59 pm |
  12. AM

    Yawn...who cares...Congress does nothing...Prez does nothing,,,Cabinet and Department Heads do nothing...and these appointees will do nothing

    November 21, 2013 12:59 pm at 12:59 pm |
  13. raul c.'s about time the Dems did something for its base and start playing hardball with the GOP since the GOP has no plans to work with the Dems as long as Pres. Obama is there. Bravo...

    November 21, 2013 12:59 pm at 12:59 pm |
  14. Jerry B

    Oh how soon the democrats forget. When it happens to them in the future (right after the mid-terms in 2014) they will cry like the little babies they are.

    November 21, 2013 12:59 pm at 12:59 pm |
  15. cajr

    wow the democrats trying to just change rules whenever they want to ensure everything ends up in their favor? i'm shocked!

    November 21, 2013 12:59 pm at 12:59 pm |
  16. Mike

    Typical... When the other side does it its gerrymandering, when Reid and his douchbagocrats do it its for the good of the country....BS it so they can get their way. Friggin babies.

    November 21, 2013 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  17. JohnRJohnson

    YAY! Hoorah! Yahoo! Go get 'em Harry. Finally, you grew a pair and did what should have been done 3 years ago.

    November 21, 2013 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  18. Reasonably

    Fire them all and start over. These children need a time out.

    November 21, 2013 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  19. Concerned Voter

    The beginning of the end... Get right with God, grab your guns and potatoes! There won't be much else on earth that will matter besides water and oxygen.

    November 21, 2013 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  20. nmmell08

    To all those who think the Republicans are going to smack the Democrats around in 2014 a few things
    A) Whose approval rating was the lowest ever recorded by Gallup this year (Hint: GOP)
    B) Do the republicans have an alternative to the Afordable Care Act that isn't the old way, which kind of blew? It took so long to just put in the information for the previous system and you could be denied becasue of any condition. Also better healthcatre plans for lower prices is the trend of insurence in the exchanges.
    C) Explain how in the GOP primary in LA, the house of rep canidate who was in favor of the medicaid expansion (the other wasn't) in his home state won by 20 points, even though the establishment supported the other guy, if Obamacare is so unpopular.

    November 21, 2013 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  21. jinx9to88

    @ Linda R
    Instead of just threatening to invoke the nuclear option, JUST DO IT! I'm sick and tired of the Dems just threatening and NOT DOING!!!!!!!!!!


    You mean like the GOP threatening to impeach the President? LMAO!!!

    November 21, 2013 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
  22. Mike

    They've just handed the GOP the golden key lol

    November 21, 2013 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
  23. livingston

    Good. Now get back to work and stop playing games. If only do this in the house maybe we would have a working a government again.

    November 21, 2013 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
  24. PaminIA

    Good now if only we could shut the rethugs up on everything else we MIGHT get something done around here.

    November 21, 2013 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
  25. Casual Observer

    While it is true that Democrats opposed this maneuver when the GOP was considering it, there is an important distinction: Democrats did not filibuster everything and everyone. In fact, they allowed up-or-down votes on many controversial Republican nominees and bills, successfully filibustering fewer nominees than you can count on one hand.

    Now I'm not a big fan of either party, but on this issue it is impossible to argue that the Republicans are not to blame for today's actions by totally ruining the purpose of the filibuster. The filibuster was supposed to be a judiciously used power of the minority, only pulled out for the most dramatic of occasions. Under the GOP, the filibuster is used on virtually every vote they oppose, from the must mundane legislation to the most middle-of-the-road nominees.

    Those are the facts, and facts matter.

    November 21, 2013 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
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