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. Wolf in Sheep clothing

    It is sad that liberals and democrats on this board are cheering Harry Reid on like it is a game. This country is in a sad state of affairs brought to you by Obama and his administration.
    Obama has divided this nation to an extent that we will never recover. He blames the rich for the poor, Bush for the economy, now the Republicans for the ACA.
    This is not the Yankees vs. Redsox it is our country we are dealing with and we should all want the same thing and that is prosperity for our future. It seems that in this day and age of politics, it is about what I can get right now now matter what it costs on down the road.
    Just remember that it will not always be a democrat controlled senate. Things will change and when they do we will look back on these times and think "where did we go wrong?"

    November 21, 2013 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  2. EastCoast Mike

    When you act like children, you have to be treated like children....

    November 21, 2013 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  3. Antronman

    And just to clarify, I meant a feud between the Reps and the Dems.

    November 21, 2013 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |

    He who lives by the gun dies by the gun. The Democrats will rue this day.

    November 21, 2013 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  5. Johnnie C

    The Nuclear action was needed because the GOP is obstructing everything Obama is trying to do,which is his right to appoint who he wants. A great Day in Washington

    November 21, 2013 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  6. Dan

    “Wrong does not cease to be wrong because the majority share in it.”
    ― Leo Tolstoy

    This is the tyranny of the majority that the founders feared. Shame on the Dems and shame on the people who support this

    November 21, 2013 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  7. NattySG

    Excellent work. It was high time to cut the contentious, spoiled-brat GOP'ers down to their proper elected-representative size.

    November 21, 2013 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  8. btechno

    filibuster shouldn't exist to begin with

    November 21, 2013 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  9. Strangways

    the Republicans are the bullies in the schoolyard – now they got what they pushed hard for. They need a good smack upside their pointy heads.

    November 21, 2013 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  10. Jeff

    This is horrible... it is going to set us up for horrible battles in the future... 6 years ago when the Demrocrats were the minority and did the same thing that the Republican are doing now... was it ok then? but not now?

    November 21, 2013 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  11. Tom

    Good for them.............. maybe something will get done now. They can always change it back if they were ever going to lose the majority or back to a 50-50 tie........which won't happen anyway any time soon.

    November 21, 2013 01:17 pm at 1:17 pm |
  12. Steve

    The Senate democrats have seen the numbers and know the score. They know the American people are about to drop the bomb on the right.

    November 21, 2013 01:17 pm at 1:17 pm |
  13. Robert

    I consider myself democratic. And as one, I consider this action absolutely insane.

    November 21, 2013 01:17 pm at 1:17 pm |
  14. Dennis

    Guess we'll see how much Harry likes his handiwork when some future Republican president starts packing courts with Tea Partiers and Anti-Abortion activists. Crying shame that politicians are so short-sighted. Guess all they care about is the current news cycle . . .

    November 21, 2013 01:17 pm at 1:17 pm |
  15. davecu

    Alright, Happy Harry.
    Let's not hear you cry when this comes back to bite you.
    Short fixes frequently do not consider long consequences, do they Harry!

    November 21, 2013 01:17 pm at 1:17 pm |
  16. EddyL

    EXCELLENT..... Right-wingers have stalled government long enough.

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

    Hahahahaha, majority rules, ba-bye obstructionist GOP fools.

    November 21, 2013 01:17 pm at 1:17 pm |
  18. southerngent

    Just like obamacare, the democrats now own the consequences of those appointed. If you are a religious person pray for our country.

    November 21, 2013 01:17 pm at 1:17 pm |
  19. tiz


    I'm sure this won't backfire on the democrats...

    November 21, 2013 01:17 pm at 1:17 pm |
  20. phoenix05

    We need new blood with new ideas in office, and run the old fossils that has been in office since the dark ages out of town.

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

    Another little fact is it will probably allow vote on the gun legislation that is just sitting in senate waiting for the moment they think they have the votes to pass it.

    November 21, 2013 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
  22. Mary

    There is a one person one vote policy in most democracies. With these antiquated filibuster rules, that is not the case. Now, finally the will of the people will be accomplished. Good job Senator Reid.

    November 21, 2013 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
  23. Jolat

    When the time comes that republicans run the senate, we shall see how Harry 'the ware in Iraq is lost' Reid feels about this.

    November 21, 2013 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
  24. Lucas

    This is just a pathetic attempt to change the subject from Obamacare. This will come back to bite the democrats in the @ss.

    November 21, 2013 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
  25. Jeebusss

    You abuse it you lose it. My grade school kids understand that rule. Apparently it's too complex for Republicans.

    November 21, 2013 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
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