November 21st, 2013
09:17 AM ET
8 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. Jim

    And a big middle finger to Lindsay graham! Finally they are growing the spine to help move the country forward!


    Am I the only one...that can't believe making the confirmation process a little easier requiring 51 votes rather than 60 is called a NUCLEAR OPTION!? How did we get to this point...CNN? When did we lose our sense of logic and reason to this level.. Please copy and paste this into your replies if you agree.

    November 21, 2013 01:48 pm at 1:48 pm |
  2. 9hydra


    Now let's get those judicial nominees and cabinet members appointed. No reason the President has had to wait 5 years to appoint people to his cabinet.

    November 21, 2013 01:48 pm at 1:48 pm |
  3. Brainy Smurf

    Amazing... When the Demoncats Filibustered it was for the good of Democracy and that they know what is best for the country as a whole. When the Rethugs do it they are Racists and Obstructionsts.

    Pick your stories please. You can't have it both ways. I'm not even a D nor an R and this is just crazy from both sides.

    Don't come crying about this when the Rethugs take over again and start doing what they want with a 51 member vote. The D's short sightedness on this is just stupid. You play with fire and this one is going to come back and burn you in the butt. . .

    November 21, 2013 01:48 pm at 1:48 pm |
  4. Macbeth


    The filibuster should be given a proper burial. A mechanism that can be used to remove popular opinion (represented as votes) is one that robs the democratic process of alignment with majority opinion. It basically countermands the purpose of voting.
    So you're saying the filibuster rule is very much like the Construction

    November 21, 2013 01:48 pm at 1:48 pm |
  5. Joyce Rule

    Why are you making such a big deal about Democrats making a rule change...done in full view of the public...that simply changes the vote from 60 to 51 on only one issue when you all but ignored the Republicans who met secretly in the night of October 30 to give ONE MAN full dictatorship of the house by letting the Speaker decide whether or not to take a vote on ANY subject? This seems like a much bigger deal to me. The Speaker now has more power than the President!

    November 21, 2013 01:49 pm at 1:49 pm |
  6. borisgv

    Another example of the Obama Administration changing the rules to suit their needs. They can't live by the rules our forefathers started this country with, so they cut corners. It's sickening.

    November 21, 2013 01:49 pm at 1:49 pm |
  7. dax

    The shoe will soon be on the other foot and thats why they are pulling out the stops to pack the courts. BTW Reid has the lowest approval of any member of congress.

    November 21, 2013 01:49 pm at 1:49 pm |
  8. Joe in Florida

    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 01:49 pm at 1:49 pm |
  9. ryche

    Oh its going to be awesome when GOP takes over in 2014... and you'll have dems like reid crying because now the GOP can use these same rules... Thanks Harry.. you just made it alot easier to overturn anything the GOP wants too.. inluding judges, legislation, funding, EO's.. name it.. btw, there are several videos out of obama, reid and biden talking about how going nuclear was treason and the worst our country could ever do.. of course that was in 2006... now its ok... HYPOCRITES.. like all democrats..

    November 21, 2013 01:49 pm at 1:49 pm |
  10. Otis

    About time Reid grew some balls

    November 21, 2013 01:49 pm at 1:49 pm |
  11. teamski

    Another short-sighted decision that will doubtlessly come back to haunt the Democrats.

    November 21, 2013 01:49 pm at 1:49 pm |
  12. schaz

    When the rules don't work for you, change them.

    That's the Democratic Party way.

    November 21, 2013 01:49 pm at 1:49 pm |
  13. Lee

    Very misleading article. The author should quote statistics about WHY the rules were changed. Far more filibuster threats used now than ever before. How can the Senate continue to work under those conditions? This benefits both parties.

    November 21, 2013 01:49 pm at 1:49 pm |
  14. akka1234

    Obama did promise to "fundamentally change America". Now he and his minions can have their way. Sure hope all those responsible for putting these boneheads into office like what they get. Put on your seatbelt and hang on. This is just the beginning. Too bad so many saw the writing on the wall – tried to avoid it – but did not have the votes to stop it. Now we all go down with the ship. You can't fix stupid...

    November 21, 2013 01:49 pm at 1:49 pm |
  15. Progressive not regressive

    When the GOP deliberately makes it 100% clear that ALL they are going to do is continue to block, obstruct and filibuster, they they really gave the Dems no alternative. The GOP leadership, if you can call it that, should be charged with treason for trying to destroy our government. I just wish this rule change applied to SCOTUS as well. Eat it, Cruz, Rush, Kochs, Boehner and Mitch.

    November 21, 2013 01:50 pm at 1:50 pm |
  16. parshman

    I am looking forward to November when America will vote based on the reality of this failed administration and return Senate and House control to Republicans. Americans by the millions are waiting for November to do just that. This certainly is a transparent administration; transparently corrupt, deceitful, inept, ignorant and arrogant.

    November 21, 2013 01:50 pm at 1:50 pm |
  17. Bob Hope's Ghost

    when the Republicans take majority, Reid is going to regret ever creating this monster. Also funny how a few years ago, Reid himself said it was unamerican to do such a thing in the senate when the GOP tried it.

    November 21, 2013 01:50 pm at 1:50 pm |
  18. Anonymous

    OMG, the dems actually grew a pair!? Actually, doesn't go far enough. Should have taken the opportunity to abolish the filibuster completely.

    November 21, 2013 01:50 pm at 1:50 pm |
  19. d

    As long as they are ok with I told you so sometime down the road when the republicans use it against them.

    November 21, 2013 01:50 pm at 1:50 pm |
  20. pkrbkr03

    It's about time the Democrats stood up to the Repulicans! Good job! If the Rs hadn't been so darn obstructionistic this would never have happened! They seem to just enjoy saying ,"NO." Well, the Democrats finally said, "No!:

    November 21, 2013 01:51 pm at 1:51 pm |
  21. Bob

    These Democrats are so power-hungry they don't care what they destroy, including the minority rights in the Senate. As much as they say the Republicans are obstructing nominees, the Dems did the same thing and the Republicans didn't end their filibustering power.

    November 21, 2013 01:51 pm at 1:51 pm |
  22. freeman

    I did not miss a thing durring the government shutdown. The only problem is we paid all those gov. workers
    for not working. Think of how much we could have saved.

    November 21, 2013 01:51 pm at 1:51 pm |
  23. 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 they 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 01:51 pm at 1:51 pm |
  24. PALibertarian

    Changing the rules to end a filibuster may solve the immediate issue of Republicans blocking judicial nominees, but what happens if the GOP regains the Senate in 2014? And also the presidency in 2016? Then what voice will the Democrats have if they don't like a Republican nominee? Those rules were a checks and balances measure to ensure the whim of the majority doesn't always impose itself on the rest. Now there is no check to majority power. Very short-sighted.

    November 21, 2013 01:51 pm at 1:51 pm |
  25. Mike

    It's about time. The party of "no" has run its course.

    November 21, 2013 01:51 pm at 1:51 pm |
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