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. Rick

    It's hallarious how all the GOP folks are complaining about this, yet look up the stunt the GOP pulled with House Resolution 368, THE most undemocratic move I've ever seen, that not only flies in the face of democracy, but was done to create the shutdown and ensure nobody could stop it from happening.

    November 21, 2013 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  2. Liberal Mussolini

    Democrats are Fascists.

    November 21, 2013 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  3. lawyerprof

    It is ABOUT TIME. 50% of all judicial nominee filibusters in the history of the US have been since Obama was elected!

    November 21, 2013 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  4. rare_earth

    168 total nominees have been filibustered.
    86 among all Presidents up until Obama.
    82 by Republicans against Obama.
    Good move Dems.

    November 21, 2013 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  5. flatlander22

    If that section with McConnell on the up or down vote is not an ad, it needs to come down unless CNN is now an official arm of the democratic party. If it is an ad it needs to be labeled as such. Because, both parties have been on each side of this question. Reid was the only one crazy enough o pull the trigger. Its a blatant power grab by Harry doing what Obama wanted. Before screaming Republican, Tea Party obstructionists, look, don't take a liberal rag's word for it, what happened to Bush appointees. Besides filibusters, when the majority, Reid prevented many from ever reaching the floor. They did not need a filibuster, he just never put the forward. As evidenced by in Bush's last year of the twenty appointees he put forward, at least 15 if them are filled by Obama appointees.

    November 21, 2013 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  6. JohnRJohnson

    It is quite satisfying to hear right-wingers whining and moaning here, when they've been asking for this for the last 5 years.

    November 21, 2013 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  7. Ron

    SENATOR BARACK OBAMA (D-ILLINOIS): The American people sent us here to be their voice. They understand that those voices can at times become loud and argumentative, but they also hope that we can disagree without being disagreeable. […]

    What they don't expect is for one party – be it Republican or Democrat – to change the rules in the middle of the game so that they can make all the decisions while the other party is told to sit down and keep quiet. […]

    The American people want less partisanship in this town, but everyone in this chamber knows that the majority chooses to end the filibuster. If they choose to change the rules and put an end to Democratic debate, then the fighting and the bitterness and the gridlock will only get worse.

    Now I understand that Republicans are getting a lot of pressure to do this from factions outside the chamber, but we need to rise above the "ends justify the means" mentality because we're here to answer to the people – all of the people – not just the ones that are wearing our particular party label. […]

    If the right of free and open debate is taken away from the minority party, and the millions of Americans who asked us to be their voice, I fear that the already partisan atmosphere in Washington will be poisoned to the point where no one will be able to agree on anything. That doesn't serve anyone's best interests, and it certainly isn't what the patriots who founded this democracy had in mind. We owe the people who sent us here more than that – we owe them much more.

    November 21, 2013 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  8. dave p

    English term "filibuster" is derived from the Spanish filibustero, itself deriving originally from the Dutch vrijbuiter, "privateer, pirate, robber"

    November 21, 2013 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  9. Sam

    Arrogant divisive and un-American. Reid just changed a 225 year old law to suit his and the crooked DNC's needs. Disgraceful.

    November 21, 2013 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  10. JC

    And this cannot help the current ACA fight....the President "changed the rules" from keep your insurance and now this.....great model for the future....

    November 21, 2013 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  11. Matt

    Harry Reid has filibustered more than anyone. He should be ashamed.

    November 21, 2013 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  12. Travis

    I don't have time now, but I would love to do a search for quotes of Democrats against this sort of thing when roles were reversed. I swear they wish Obama could be a king.

    November 21, 2013 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  13. Anna

    Boy is this going to come back to haunt them in 2014!

    November 21, 2013 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  14. They ought to change from the elephant to the hippo...

    About time... Glad SOMEONE developed a backbone!! This nonsense had gotten out of hand. Since when did it become reasonable to block nominations because they were of the opposite party? Such had become SOP for the GOP. Democrats can live with the consequences...

    November 21, 2013 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  15. Bill

    Glad to see this most un-Democratic Rule deep sixed!!

    November 21, 2013 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  16. TheSadTruth

    Get rid of the fillibuster altogether, for BOTH sides. It serves no purpose EXCEPT to waste time, and time is (the peoples') money. Force legislators to actually do their jobs, rather than make the American people sit and watch a silly game play out. Both sides are guilty of it, and common sense dictates that it STOP.

    November 21, 2013 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  17. Data Driven


    "GW Bush was blocked by the democrats and threatened this option, but made the right decision in the end. Democrats have thrown the first punch, and this will be used against them in the future. Very poor decision in the long therm."

    Hm, a scholar. Perhaps you can also squirrel out how actually successful Dems were in blocking Bush judicial appointees as of the date November 21, 2005, dating back to January 19, 2001. Find that number, and compare it to how many Obama appointees have been blocked by the GOP.

    November 21, 2013 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  18. Jim

    Like petulant children fattening themselves on candy, drunk with power. Now they're throwing out democracy in favor of a majority rules concept. As an independent voter it kind of sickens me. Time to switch parties to the Republican side. This my way or the highway stuff will be their undoing. The previous posters are right, karma will comeback and bite the dems this next election cycle.

    November 21, 2013 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  19. unknown11

    It seems to me that in order to be a democrat, you need to be short sighted, hypocritical, pandering, and lack the ability to do basic math.

    November 21, 2013 01:31 pm at 1:31 pm |
  20. daviddavid

    how can anyone believe what harry reid says?

    November 21, 2013 01:31 pm at 1:31 pm |
  21. steve455

    this cuts both ways. Yes, Reid has now paved the way for more activist judges on which liberalism deeply depends, but the Dems wont control the senate forever.

    November 21, 2013 01:31 pm at 1:31 pm |
  22. George

    It's about time !!

    November 21, 2013 01:31 pm at 1:31 pm |
  23. GLV

    All those folks saying, "good". Why? Changing the rules when it applies to your "side"? Why are we so caught up in "sides". Our government is a freakin' joke...BOTH sides...but to sit back and encourage, basically, a "take over" is as ludacris as encouraging a "shutdown" all because someone isn't getting their way. We're so screwed, and you folks who are happy with this don't even know it

    November 21, 2013 01:31 pm at 1:31 pm |
  24. mpf

    More proof we live in a banana republic. Sad day for America. Sad day for Democracy

    November 21, 2013 01:31 pm at 1:31 pm |
  25. Bubba

    Ha. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,........................ The GOP loves to start fights. Let's see how they handle getting their butts handed to them.
    Give em' Hell Harry. There has never been a group more deserving of a beat down than the current group of terrorists known as the GOP/Tea Party.

    November 21, 2013 01:31 pm at 1:31 pm |
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