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. betterdays

    I'm no huge fan of the president, but Harry Reid is about as low as low can go. He is the master of the limbo hissy fit.

    November 21, 2013 02:13 pm at 2:13 pm |
  2. Anastasia Beaverhausen

    Gee, does this mean things will actually get done now?

    November 21, 2013 02:13 pm at 2:13 pm |
  3. If I had a hammer... I'd whack you in the morning

    as the bad children get slammed to the back of the bus... "Warp 10 Mr Sulu!"

    November 21, 2013 02:13 pm at 2:13 pm |
  4. DaveYoung

    this is all deflection away from the main issue because Obamacare is crashing and burning before their very eyes.
    The filthy democrats are adapting a Scorch The Earth agenda.

    AND NOW, A WORD FROM CHARLES…“It’s remarkable how the president discovers stuff late into his presidency. Remember at the beginning he spends a - a near trillion dollars on the stimulus, and then discovers afterward that shovel- ready really doesn't exist. And then he told us just a few days ago he discovered how, you know, that purchasing health insurance is not easy. It’s rather difficult. I mean, is this news to him? And now he tells us he’s discovering that this issue of adverse selection in the absence of young people who will subsidize the older and the sicker is a real issue. It's been the problem at the heart of this all along. Why would a young person want to subsidize older people by having their premiums double, which is exactly what ObamaCare does.” –Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier”

    November 21, 2013 02:13 pm at 2:13 pm |
  5. Moon

    Reid has always been a low life uber partisan so no real surprise.

    November 21, 2013 02:13 pm at 2:13 pm |
  6. ScottC

    Thanks Harry. We could not have asked for a more self damaging maneuver. You have been played like a fiddle.

    November 21, 2013 02:13 pm at 2:13 pm |
  7. drc

    Another good way to fix the Senate (and Congress) is for them to pass a law that they get no more than 2 terms, PERIOD. Reid and any other life-long blood sucking politician of either party should all be gone.

    Congress was never meant to be a life-long career, especially the House.

    Then again, 80% of American has no idea the difference between the House and Senate nor any other basic things about the Govt. They simply want free stuff

    November 21, 2013 02:13 pm at 2:13 pm |
  8. Therapist

    Is anybody out there (besides those in the Senate) seriously stupid enough to believe that this is a good idea?

    November 21, 2013 02:14 pm at 2:14 pm |
  9. ScottC

    Thanks Harry.

    November 21, 2013 02:14 pm at 2:14 pm |
  10. shorething

    Thanks Reid, just secured my vote for the GOP. you can thank me now

    November 21, 2013 02:14 pm at 2:14 pm |
  11. Civitas

    This rule was put in place for a reason. Are we so much smarter then our country's fore-fathers that we can dismiss a rule that has been in place 230+ years. This rule change will come back and haunt all americans and both parties.

    November 21, 2013 02:14 pm at 2:14 pm |
  12. Zondar

    Some days I think Obama and Reid are seriously trying to start a Civil War.

    November 21, 2013 02:14 pm at 2:14 pm |
  13. stainless-guy

    What comes around...............................

    November 21, 2013 02:14 pm at 2:14 pm |
  14. rick


    As a country we have averaged one filibuster roughly every decade.
    Since the president was elected the obstructionist republicans have filibustered over 400 times.

    Enough with the hissyfitters standing in the way of the man doing what the American public elected him to do.

    November 21, 2013 02:14 pm at 2:14 pm |
  15. Dave Hawkins

    Getting desperate Harry? You'll be soorrryyyy! Short term gain long term it'll cost ya!

    November 21, 2013 02:14 pm at 2:14 pm |
  16. ThisIsNot4U2

    This had to be done. After the Ted Cruz fiasco that turned the whole process into a joke.

    November 21, 2013 02:14 pm at 2:14 pm |
  17. Clear Voice

    It is time for the disfunction in the Senate the end. If only the house would be able to make similar changes maybe Washington would be able to begin do the job of governing.

    November 21, 2013 02:14 pm at 2:14 pm |
  18. Simon

    For all those talking about the GOP retaking the Senate, good luck. The GOP has been unforgivably obstructionist. The judges the President has been putting forward are not radicals and all are well qualified. The GOP has been playing games and got its bluff called. One move available to the Dems is getting the backlog of appointments through so the government and Judicial branch can function and then changing it back. If they change it back it should be done in a way that makes anyone who wants to filibuster have to actually filibuster. That way obstructionist Senators would have to take responsibility for their actions.

    November 21, 2013 02:14 pm at 2:14 pm |
  19. Diablo Blanco

    All these idiots commenting–are you so brain-dead (short answer: yes) that you don't remember just a few short years ago when the democrats were using the filibuster against Bush's appointees–including ol' PrezBO himself, in his short but "illustrative" (LOL) Senate career?

    November 21, 2013 02:14 pm at 2:14 pm |
  20. Tony B.

    If your party can't get the votes your party changes the voting rules. Typical Communist move.

    November 21, 2013 02:14 pm at 2:14 pm |
  21. Shuffler

    Criminals change the rules all the time when they don't get their way.

    November 21, 2013 02:15 pm at 2:15 pm |
  22. JoMama

    Good luck Dems when the shoe is on the other foot.

    November 21, 2013 02:15 pm at 2:15 pm |
  23. Penone

    Let's see how they feel in 2014 when the Republicans have the majority. Then again – with rhino's like McCain and McConnell does it really matter. What's next? Let Obama run for a third term?

    November 21, 2013 02:15 pm at 2:15 pm |
  24. Really?

    Americans u voted for these power hungry arrogant SOBs. They dicate what is good for u b/c they know better than all of us. U could have change the course of this country fr the downward spiral last year but oh no. U fall for the same crap fr Obama and the Dems. The only way to right this ship is to make Harry Reid a minority come Nov 2014. Otherwise you are just saying yes to all of this crap and u will deserve it.
    What happened to the Democrat Party of JFK? Now it is run by a bunch of extremists dictators.
    Show your outrage and vote every single Dem out!

    November 21, 2013 02:15 pm at 2:15 pm |
  25. N

    The sad thing is 75 percent of the country doesn't know or care what happened today. Hats off to Dems flushing our country down the drain.

    November 21, 2013 02:15 pm at 2:15 pm |
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