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. Dan

    So the new "rule" will specify that this only applies to a democrat majority ?

    November 21, 2013 10:29 am at 10:29 am |
  2. Anonymous

    "Many Republicans appear resigned to the fact that this is likely to happen, but argue Democrats are just trying to manufacture a crisis in order to change the subject away from the Obamacare rollout debacle." Yes, there was no "crisis" before Obamacare. Everything was peachy back in the day. Filibusters are nothing more than spoiled children holding their parents hostage in the grocery store while they throw a tantrum in the candy aisle. It's time to walk out of the store and let the brats cry. If these are the kinds of maneuvers that have to take place to get things done in Washington, then so be it. If the "rules" don't work, find something that does.

    Another option that can help fix government- DON'T VOTE FOR THE PEOPLE WHO ARE CURRENTLY RUNNING IT. If you walk into the voting booth and blindly pull R or D, or just pick the names you have heard somewhere, you should lose your right to vote and be sent to a country where your vote doesn't matter.

    November 21, 2013 10:29 am at 10:29 am |
  3. Rudy NYC

    This "nuclear option" treats the symptom, not the cure. The only change that I might make would be to get rid of the silent filibuster, which would also have the side effect of one side sustaining only one filibuster at a time.

    November 21, 2013 10:31 am at 10:31 am |
  4. mike

    Well, Harry you better have fun while you can because you wont be leader after next yr.

    November 21, 2013 10:32 am at 10:32 am |
  5. Reggie

    WHY NOT? Right...have you not seen how 'great' almost ALL Obama's nominees were? True friends of his...fohget about da kountry...WE RULE, seems like they really don't get a damn about anything..and THEN AGAIN DEMS WILL BLAME REPUBS for all the evil in the world...not that Rs are Cinderellas, but hey you Dems are even worse...especially with the way they brush aside ANY CRITICISM and years later blame the very colleagues they shut up

    November 21, 2013 10:32 am at 10:32 am |
  6. Data Driven

    Wow, THIS is the DIsqus-Troll thread today? Well, they do hate Harry ...

    I bet they can't articulate why, though. Conservatives should be cheering this, since they're gonna take back the Senate in 2014. Right?

    November 21, 2013 10:33 am at 10:33 am |
  7. JD

    Wow any party to change the rules because they are getting blocked on something.. So to get there way they just change the rules.. wow must be nice.. I do not want to pay taxes can I change the law requiring Just me from paying.. BOTH parties do this and both need to really figure it out.. No wonder the world laughs at us.. In 197 the real wages were $8.61 cents in 2010 the real wages are $8.92 (averaged for all Americans) So in 40 years our wages went up 31 cents Before taxes.. and we are worried about some judge .

    November 21, 2013 10:34 am at 10:34 am |
  8. Scott

    Do it.

    The fillibuster has been misused and abused for years.

    November 21, 2013 10:34 am at 10:34 am |
  9. sammy750

    Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) the No. 2 GOP leader and helped push the effort to eliminate filibusters on the George W. Bush White House’s judicial selections. Eight years later, McConnell, now the minority leader, has grown publicly furious over Reid’s threats to use the same maneuver. This is interesting that the Republicans feel they can do anything to pass bills when they are in power, but don't think the Democrats should. It is time the Democrats and the people take over both House and Senate and get work done.

    November 21, 2013 10:34 am at 10:34 am |
  10. concerned citizen

    Enough is enough. It's time.

    November 21, 2013 10:34 am at 10:34 am |
  11. Dave

    Dem's pushed Obamacare through by violating a Senate rule. That's working out really well for them.

    November 21, 2013 10:35 am at 10:35 am |
  12. JD


    the democrats did it all the time to Bush.. but I forget that does not count In fact it was done 17 times!! so once a decade? So make the change happen after the next election cycle.. not now.. bet they will not do it just in case the other party is in power.. and if they do i bet they complain when its reveresed

    November 21, 2013 10:36 am at 10:36 am |
  13. Dallas

    I don't think Senator Reid has any other choice – no one can work with these republican tea bag obstructionists and while they are doing their ranting and raving and placing blame on everyone but themselves, the country suffers. The President's nominees need to be confirmed and the business of the nation should continue!

    November 21, 2013 10:37 am at 10:37 am |
  14. El Warbo Grande

    Ried: "Wouldn't enslaving America be so much easier if all these people with views opposing mine didn't have a say?"

    November 21, 2013 10:37 am at 10:37 am |
  15. BJ

    This is NOT a good idea but then again this is Harry Reid that we are talking about.

    November 21, 2013 10:37 am at 10:37 am |
  16. spencercourt

    Apparently most of the commenters here are either ignorant of the history of the filibuster or are intentionally ignoring it for partisan or other reasons. The filibuster was NEVER intentionally created by the Senate. It was the result of an ERROR in a rules update and then a Senator trying to stall something discovered it. Now, why that error was never "corrected"earlier is another matter.

    November 21, 2013 10:38 am at 10:38 am |
  17. livingston

    In the past every time this was mentioned the Minority party would realize that they pushed too far and would start to negotiate and compromise. Not any more. Now the gop/teaparty makes agreements and at the last minute goes back on their word and all agreements made. If we want to accomplish anything at all in government this needs to stop and this is the only way left to stop it. And it's about time!

    November 21, 2013 10:38 am at 10:38 am |
  18. Murat

    predictable paranoia out of tea partiers in this thread, but doing away with the filibuster is an absolutely necessary step that brings us one step closer to being able to do even one damn thing ever.

    November 21, 2013 10:39 am at 10:39 am |
  19. CB FL

    From what I am reading on here the right wing is scared to death that he will do this so the government can get back to work.

    November 21, 2013 10:40 am at 10:40 am |
  20. Dutch/Bad Newz, VA -aka- Take Back The House -aka- No Redemption Votes

    Nothing to debate. Go Nuclear Harry!!! We know what the GOP game plan is and that's to nullify this presidency. Sen. Reid, you are fully justified in going this route. Not to mention, that you should switch the rules back to normal once these nominees are confirmed.

    November 21, 2013 10:40 am at 10:40 am |
  21. Data Driven


    "Apparently most of the commenters here are either ignorant of the history of the filibuster or are intentionally ignoring it for partisan or other reasons"

    The former.

    November 21, 2013 10:42 am at 10:42 am |
  22. Jim

    This is more like "going sane again!" It's long passed time to get rid of the filibuster, I don't care who's party is in, get rid of it! The media is utterly destroying sanity in politics thanks to these catch phrases and finger pointing. Nothing gets done anymore! Anything that is remotely suggested is quickly taken by the media, the other side goes ape$%it and it gets stopped dead in it's tracks, no negotiations, nothing, just scrapped, then the other side does the same and their idea gets slammed, NOTHING gets accomplished and the media reports on the low ratings of congress, gee wonder why. Their feets are beyond just being put in the fire, they roast them alive for a mere mention of a solution because of how polarized the country is. Let them work! Get rid of this obstructive filibuster, that would be a great start!

    November 21, 2013 10:43 am at 10:43 am |
  23. geckopelli

    And the Democrats have officially usurped the Republicans as the most dangerous political party in America.
    Heil Obama!

    November 21, 2013 10:43 am at 10:43 am |
  24. Tony in STL

    The repubs have been going nuclear against America ever since our President took office. I think it's time's the only option left. Repubs are self-destructing, with help from within, and ...those internal "cancers" are trying to bring the country down with it! Go Nuke, ...let's deal with any fall out if it comes. And if the fall out comes from the same mutation, ...hit it again!

    November 21, 2013 10:43 am at 10:43 am |
  25. tom l

    As the great Data Driven would say....con cuidado.

    November 21, 2013 10:44 am at 10:44 am |
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