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. BottomLine

    We should have term limits for all. 1 term. President 6 years. Senate 4 years, House 2 years. We should not allow guy's to spend a lifetime messing our lives up. Make them get real jobs.

    November 21, 2013 01:46 pm at 1:46 pm |
  2. GiSWiG

    My son filibusters bed time. Grow up Senators.

    November 21, 2013 01:46 pm at 1:46 pm |
  3. InkyGuy

    Finally!! (Expressing huge, tired sigh of relief.)

    Enough of this destructive unilateral obstructionism.

    November 21, 2013 01:46 pm at 1:46 pm |
  4. Dave

    You just handed the sword to the opponent who will run you through with...I like it!

    November 21, 2013 01:46 pm at 1:46 pm |
  5. TrueGritCA01

    Thank God!
    For six year the GOP has tried to overturn (coup) the last two presidential elections, by shutting down the US Government, not appointing judges to the bench and endless congressional investigations on any and everything that the President has done. And daily votes to takeaway healthcare for millions of Americans. Thank God we still have a true patriotic party the democrats, which still believes in the United States of America!

    November 21, 2013 01:46 pm at 1:46 pm |
  6. Greg

    Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D – CA) 5/18/05

    “The nuclear option, if successful, will turn the Senate into a body that could have its rules broken at any time by a majority of Senators unhappy with any position taken by the minority. It begins with judicial nominations—next will be executive appointments and then legislation.”

    “…If the Republican leadership insists on forcing the nuclear option, the Senate becomes ipso facto the House of Representatives, where the majority rules supreme and the party in power can dominate and control the agenda with absolute power.”

    November 21, 2013 01:46 pm at 1:46 pm |
  7. Obama is our downfall

    I have read from liberals on here that the Republicans would have done this if they were in the majority or that Americans want government to work is mind boggling. I know the democrats feel they are King Obama and his knights of the round table but the government has worked for over 200 years before this set of fools ever took office. And the comment about the Republicans would have done this years ago is another farce in that the Democrats have not ALWAYS had the majority and neither party took it this far. This just shows the arrogance of Obama's minions who think since they won two elections by SLIM margins they are running the magical kingdom.

    November 21, 2013 01:46 pm at 1:46 pm |
  8. HowCanYouBelieveAWordHeSaysAnymore

    If Lying doesn't work, cheat.

    November 21, 2013 01:46 pm at 1:46 pm |
  9. SteveinLVNV

    The Dems will do ANYTHING to deflect away from the PonziCare failure! They know this isn't going to work and are very desperate to make all the problems go away and get people to forget... Which we WON'T, and now they have gone way too far again... The Messiah must be served! And Reid didn't disappoint him... 2014 is coming and they know it!!

    November 21, 2013 01:47 pm at 1:47 pm |
  10. Lenny Pincus

    Thank you. It's called majority rule for a reason.

    November 21, 2013 01:47 pm at 1:47 pm |
  11. Mark

    I cant wait to hear more GOP crying when they don't win as many seats as they expect in 2014.

    November 21, 2013 01:47 pm at 1:47 pm |
  12. Bulos Qoqish

    About bloody TIME this happened.

    It is bad enough that the U.S. Senate has its built-in, wildly unfair electoral system, in which the State of Montana (rural, lilly-white, Republican, reactionary, population 1,005,141) get the same number of Senators as the State of New York (partly urban, ethnically diverse, Democratic, progressive, population 19,570,261) - so in effect people living in Montana have NEARLY TWENTY (20) TIMES the Senate representation that New Yorkers do - but to then have the farcical situation where only 41 of 50 Senators (overwhelmingly ones from the most rural, Red State regions of the U.S.) can permanently block the U.S. federal government and federal courts from even having administrators to run them, was an absolutely intolerable, indefensible situation.

    Now, the Senate needs to get rid of the filibuster completely, forever, and never bring it back. It is beyond ridiculous that a single demagogue like Ted Cruz could - theoretically - do things like permanently prevent the U.S. Congress from passing a budget. If you want the government to "function", then you have to remove the tools used by nihilists and obstructionists, that make it "dysfunctional".

    So two cheers for Harry Reid.

    November 21, 2013 01:47 pm at 1:47 pm |
  13. Greg

    Sen Max Baucaus (D-MT) 5/19/05

    “This is the way democracy ends—not with a bomb, but with a gavel.”

    November 21, 2013 01:47 pm at 1:47 pm |
  14. Data Driven


    "To see these 1diots in DC destroy the foundation of our once proud country is really disgusting. It pulls deep for me as my family has five generations of military, some of whom have given all. I cant imagine the ignorance, selfishness, and arrogance one must have to make it to the hill. A bunch of lousy human beings they are, its shameful really. I am embarrased for this country and the mockery of so called leadership."

    The rule change means that 51 votes - still a majority! - in the Senate are required to approve a Presidential appointment to a federal court and other Executive posts. Get ... a ... grip.

    November 21, 2013 01:47 pm at 1:47 pm |
  15. rb

    The Democrats have become the Neo-Nazis of our generation.

    November 21, 2013 01:47 pm at 1:47 pm |
  16. chuck kasabian

    "wait till the reps are the majority"

    why? are they going to actually do something for this country? of course not. all they focus on is shooting down anything the democrats want. they say yes, you say no. very original. it's pathetic how far this country has fallen – and guess why? It's all because of people just like you on both sides of the aisle who are consumed with hate, nothing more.

    November 21, 2013 01:47 pm at 1:47 pm |
  17. Lucas

    Every thirty years or so, the country feels the need to dip it's toes into Socialism. It happened in the 30's under FDR, in the 70's under Carter, and 2008-present under Obama. Eventually, America always wakes up and fixes the liberal's mess.

    GOP 2014 and 2016

    November 21, 2013 01:47 pm at 1:47 pm |
  18. guest

    Harry Reid should be doing the perp walk in chains right now.

    November 21, 2013 01:48 pm at 1:48 pm |
  19. Julie MS

    This is not a democracy it's a dictatorship. Take them all down. Impeach the whole bunch of them.

    November 21, 2013 01:48 pm at 1:48 pm |
  20. Steve

    Yes. It is one thing to block a nominee for valid reasons; however, the Republicans were blocking all nominees for no reason. I'm glad to see the dems have grown a pair and fought back.

    November 21, 2013 01:48 pm at 1:48 pm |
  21. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    @daviddavid, the reps have always acted like they were the majority and got away with it. Now it's CHECKMATE.

    November 21, 2013 01:48 pm at 1:48 pm |
  22. bob

    What hurts one side now will bite the other side later.

    November 21, 2013 01:48 pm at 1:48 pm |
  23. Joe in Florida

    Simply WOW! Some tightening of the rule was definitely called for, the GOP has abused the rule unmercifully, but removal? I'm a progressive person, but this seems extreme to me.

    November 21, 2013 01:48 pm at 1:48 pm |
  24. Greg

    And the Minority Leader entered a "Gentleman's Agreement" with Reid to not allow indiscriminate filibusters to be called from his own side; he didn't keep his end of that bargain, so Harry grew a pair and BOOM!, we now have effective government. I long for the days of REAL filibusters, wherein the blocking member had to stand (not sit, not lean) and protest the item in front of America. When you could anonymously veto dozens of nominations without facing the scrutiny of the public - that was the real sin. Good on you, Harry!

    November 21, 2013 01:48 pm at 1:48 pm |
  25. Tandm

    We are now arguing over this stupidity? We have another shutdown looming in the very near future and our "representatives" cant even decide whats best for an appointed position? Why should we think they can determine whats best for an entire country? Evolution or Revolution?

    November 21, 2013 01:48 pm at 1:48 pm |
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