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. Stockton

    It's the likes of Harry Reid that perpetuate the polarization of congress. It will come back to bite him in 2014, and well it should.

    November 21, 2013 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
  2. Charles

    This will come back to bite them in November.

    November 21, 2013 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
  3. Anonymous

    When you don't get your way, change the rules. This will come back to bite them when the GOP gets their turn again.

    November 21, 2013 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  4. edmundburkeson

    Is this nuclear or postal?

    November 21, 2013 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |

    oh and I'll be surprised if the liberal press run by his minions prints my thoughts. It isn't against policy but it is anti-nuclear option policy.

    November 21, 2013 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  6. Sid

    remember in the 00s when this was supposed to be the end of democracy/rule of law? you know, when the republicans were considering doing it to get Ws nominees by the democratic minority?

    November 21, 2013 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  7. keith

    about time

    November 21, 2013 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  8. Jerry B

    Socialists love a good dictatorship as long as it's them in power. That will come back to bite the pigs.

    November 21, 2013 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  9. David

    Democrats have had control of America since 2007 and we have failed since. Anytime you have a one party system, you become abusive and then corrupt.

    November 21, 2013 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  10. rosaadriana

    Something has to be done, this is the only way. They should have done this 4 years ago.

    November 21, 2013 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  11. LOL

    "How does it feel To be on your own With no direction home Like a complete unknown Like a rolling stone?"

    November 21, 2013 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  12. RAYMEO

    Wondering...can the Senate and House be any 'more' partisan that it already is??!! I support this can be sure if the Parties' powers were reversed the GOP would have use this option years ago!!

    November 21, 2013 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  13. jason

    The GOP will try to repeal it when they take the senate in 2044

    November 21, 2013 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  14. GetEd

    Lewis, I can't wait to see your disappointment after 2014. Come back again then and give a sign.

    November 21, 2013 01:03 pm at 1:03 pm |
  15. Paul Williamson

    Its about time the Senate moved into the 21st century, and started repairing our dysfunctional Government. In the Senate, one minority Senator can block the votes of 59 Senators by filibustering; they should get rid of the filibuster for all voting situations, not just appointments.

    November 21, 2013 01:03 pm at 1:03 pm |
  16. Al

    This is a serious mistake that can really come back to haunt the Democrats. Think of all the Bush era atrocities that the Dems stopped with the filibuster. Now they have thrown it all away.

    November 21, 2013 01:03 pm at 1:03 pm |
  17. Dutch/Bad Newz, VA -aka- Take Back The House -aka- No Redemption Votes

    ICBM has been launched and now it's time to confirm some nominees. Sad state of affairs that it had to come to this, but it had to be done in the face of this unprecedented obstruction. Compare the time it took for Bush's nominees to be confirmed compared to Obama's. That's what this is all about. Republicans are trying to nullify his presidency. Shame on them!!!

    November 21, 2013 01:03 pm at 1:03 pm |
  18. bskb

    If you like your Senate rules, you can keep your Senate rules.

    November 21, 2013 01:04 pm at 1:04 pm |
  19. Loser

    Harry Reid.......LOSER! Democrats will all be losers in 2014!!! HAAAAA!

    November 21, 2013 01:04 pm at 1:04 pm |
  20. JohnnyNight

    AT LAST....!!!! The American People will see some progress in our country...!!!

    November 21, 2013 01:04 pm at 1:04 pm |
  21. ironman59

    It was clear the gop did not want to cooperate on any level. When a senator comes out & point blank says " i will block all nominations" that is a problem. The gop had their chance to cooperate and just like the house have refused.

    November 21, 2013 01:04 pm at 1:04 pm |
  22. Dennis C

    The position taken by the GOP was untenable. They would filibuster judicial nominees. When the Democrats asked the GOP what was wrong with the nominee, they would say nothing. The Republicans were filibustering in many cases just to oppose the Democrats. There were nominees that when the filibuster was broken, the nominee was approved 96 to 2. I think that large numbers of Republicans hare a real problem with an African-American President.

    November 21, 2013 01:04 pm at 1:04 pm |
  23. ImvotingforHillary

    Notice how the GOP didn't do it because of BIPARTISAN agreement. Too bad the GOP nowadays refuses to work with any Democrats and it has come to this. The blame lies solely on the shoulders of the racist GOP like McConnel and McCain.

    November 21, 2013 01:04 pm at 1:04 pm |
  24. Max

    "Feinstein and others, like fellow Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, said things are so broken in Washington that the nuclear option was the only way to fix it"

    that's oxymoronic...since when any option with "nuclear" in the name has the power to "fix" something? it is usually just a way to destroy something and leave nothing behind you. just more division and less will to find the middle grounds...and on lifetime appointments, nonetheless. GOPers will not forget and the spiral of partisanship will go on...and on.

    November 21, 2013 01:04 pm at 1:04 pm |
  25. RS

    GOP = Domestic Terrorists.

    November 21, 2013 01:04 pm at 1:04 pm |
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