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. sm5574

    It's pathetic that people blame either side solely. Both sides are terrible, and the only thing that will fix that is for people to stop taking sides. This nuclear option "fixes" nothing. Nothing.

    November 21, 2013 01:26 pm at 1:26 pm |
  2. Riter

    Hard to believe there could be so much angst over majority rule. It may result in a Senate that discusses and reasons rather than just sying no. No more extortion. I am amazed that Republicans would be so vocal about allowing the majority to have their way.

    November 21, 2013 01:26 pm at 1:26 pm |
  3. John

    The only way dems can get their way.....invoke "Special" rules that in-as-much results in cheating. Typical.

    November 21, 2013 01:26 pm at 1:26 pm |
  4. david saint

    when theyve filibustered almost as many candidates as with all past Presidents COMBINED, and have no valid reason to do so (IE no ideology, nothing that shows they arent worthy or capable), then yes its time for a different route. I was against this, but now see its the only way the Senate will function properly.

    November 21, 2013 01:26 pm at 1:26 pm |
  5. Rudy NYC


    "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?
    That is simply a moronic remark. I'd bet that you think that Rocky Mountain Oysters come from the Gulf of Mexico.

    November 21, 2013 01:26 pm at 1:26 pm |
  6. roger

    Tell Harry that when this happens to the Democrats when the Republicans are in power not to whine like a girly man about it.

    November 21, 2013 01:27 pm at 1:27 pm |
  7. Al Thomas

    This is wrong on so many levels, it's hard to know where to start. Further broadening the rift between the left and the right in DC demonstrates the disdain the Democrats have for the US. Changing the rules so one party controls appointments can't be good for the country either? I'm wondering how long it will take for the US to recover from the cabal in DC.

    November 21, 2013 01:27 pm at 1:27 pm |
  8. RIchard Long

    Can't play by the rules... change them.
    Can't make the deadline... change it.
    Can't meet expectations... lower the bar
    Can't get something to pass... lie

    November 21, 2013 01:27 pm at 1:27 pm |
  9. TroubleForSure

    Harry, you just set a huge payback coming in motion. Dems (not libs) you should be concerned over this. Your party will not control the WH forever. What do you think is going to happen when you don't? Senator Obama is on record for supporting the filibuster when it was used over 30 times against Bush's judicial appointees. Republicans didn't change the Senate rules to shut down the dems. This defnitely takes the gloves off.

    November 21, 2013 01:27 pm at 1:27 pm |
  10. RettasVegas

    Finally something gets passed that benifits ALL American's, that the extreme GOP could not block!

    November 21, 2013 01:27 pm at 1:27 pm |
  11. 7light

    Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Reid "promised over and over again that he wouldn't break the rules of the Senate to change the Senate -- but Senator McConnell and his GOP friends in teh Senate have lack of sense and sensibility to govern for American.

    November 21, 2013 01:27 pm at 1:27 pm |
  12. Chris

    "Feinstein…said things are so broken in Washington that the nuclear option was the only way to fix it."

    That statement is only true of one arrogantly assumes that the Democrats are completely right and the Republicans are completely wrong. Let snap our heels together and give a hearty "Heil Reid!"

    November 21, 2013 01:27 pm at 1:27 pm |
  13. 66rock

    GOP pressed their luck with all their blocking. Now they can deal with it and the Senate can proceed.

    November 21, 2013 01:27 pm at 1:27 pm |
  14. rob

    Obama in his collosal arrogance rammed thru obamacare saying he would NOT negotiate. Look what that got him and the rest of us. Now that weasel Reid is doing the same. I wonder how this will turn out.....

    November 21, 2013 01:27 pm at 1:27 pm |
  15. Sad Day

    For those that say Repubs need to win a national election to have a say I'd arguably state that they's called the house. This is a bad day for America-it's important for the "minority" party to have a voice. The best decisions always come from a negotiated settlement rather than from the zealot side.

    My guess is that Reid/Obama realize that the ACA law is going to devastate the Dems next election and they need to rush through as many zealots as possible before that happens.

    November 21, 2013 01:27 pm at 1:27 pm |
  16. Chris

    ... and Republicans thought Dems didn't have any balls....

    Perception is everything, and the majority of folks out there believe that the government is being obstructed. Dems got the bulldozer out...

    November 21, 2013 01:28 pm at 1:28 pm |
  17. Gates

    tyranny of the majority ring a bell?

    November 21, 2013 01:28 pm at 1:28 pm |
  18. Guest

    The Communists are in power.

    November 21, 2013 01:28 pm at 1:28 pm |
  19. Organic1

    No difference when the GOP did this in the House during the shutdown...

    November 21, 2013 01:28 pm at 1:28 pm |
  20. JC

    So, let me see if I get this....Harry Reid is such a poor leader that, instead of leading, he becomes "crotchity old man" and changes the rules.....there ya go....leadership in America. Congratulations. Shameful.

    November 21, 2013 01:28 pm at 1:28 pm |
  21. anonymoose

    Dutch/Bad Newz, VA -aka- Take Back The House -aka- No Redemption Votes
    Palin is a mix of Adolf Hitler & the green specs in my feces all wrapped up in polysynthetic skin.

    What a coincidence! I was thinking the very same thing about Barack Obama after he lied to me about keeping my doctor and health insurance.

    November 21, 2013 01:28 pm at 1:28 pm |
  22. S1N

    This isn't the true nuclear option that will fix our government. The REAL nuclear option that will fix our government is killing every GOP Congressman, aide, and adviser in the D.C. Metro.

    November 21, 2013 01:28 pm at 1:28 pm |
  23. Redhead in Cary

    All you have to do is look at BHO's recent picks, and the resultant incompetence once office is gained. Geithner didn't pay $35K in taxes while at the IMF, but, yeah, put him in charge of the Treasury. Eric Holder, Fast and Furious. Lois Lerner, Susan Rice, etc. Kathleen Sibelius, well, we won't go there.

    No wonder the Reps want to block Obama's nominees, The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight.

    November 21, 2013 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  24. john

    I am so fed up with these idiot DemocRATS... we have these rules in place to LIMIT power.

    King Obama has to OWN the failures of his second term. He's an incompetent fool who won the last election by FRAUD

    November 21, 2013 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  25. Machnolious


    If people can't use something responsibly, don;t let them use it at all.

    November 21, 2013 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
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