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. Michael

    It's the right thing to do. And it will be the right thing to do if the Republicans ever regain the majority. Give every senator the right to debate, but put a cap on it and get back to work. Let majority rule, and if the voters don't like the results, elect new senators. That's the way a democratic republic works.

    November 21, 2013 02:25 pm at 2:25 pm |
  2. Grinning Libber

    Democracy returns.

    November 21, 2013 02:25 pm at 2:25 pm |
  3. rosethornne

    Naughty children, if you can't play nicely without a temper tantrum and breaking your toys then you have to go to your room.

    November 21, 2013 02:25 pm at 2:25 pm |
  4. Billy

    Nothing nuclear about it. This is the way it was supposed to be. Back to the old tried and true rules from before.

    November 21, 2013 02:25 pm at 2:25 pm |
  5. Mark Yelka

    When the only thing that the Senate can do is argue, a log-jam breaker is needed. Both parties have brought this upon themselves. And, I couldn't care less about which party is in power. Moving things forward is important. Our representatives have now proven that they cannot play well together. So, now we'll have a bit of a dictatorship of one party. At least something will happen.

    November 21, 2013 02:25 pm at 2:25 pm |
  6. Wendy

    Too bad GOP you brought this on yourselves! It's about time. Never before have we seen the obstruction & blockage of this government by the Republican party. If they conducted themselves as statesman & did not oppose everything for political gain this would not have happened. I wish that the nuclear option would be used for everything because the GOP has not done anything useful to help this country progress, to create jobs or to invest in infrastructure. The GOP should be ashamed of the way they have carried themselves since the election of this president. We have never seen so many elected officials work so hard against the interests of this government. Don't cry now Republicans do the work you are being paid to do & elected to do.

    November 21, 2013 02:25 pm at 2:25 pm |
  7. WES

    Harry, this has never been done in the history of the United States. Yeah, Republicans said the same thing that you've said, "Give it a chance to have an up or down vote". The,y however, didn't change the rule that had been in place since the Senate began. Remember, Harry, what goes around comes around. You'll be the first one to whine when the Republicans use the same rule. Right back at ya, Harry.

    November 21, 2013 02:25 pm at 2:25 pm |
  8. Dissappointed

    I think the answer is to make being Republican illegal. That way the democrats wont have any opposition to implementing pure socialism in the. US. As long as there is a dissenting voice, they at least have to be careful.

    November 21, 2013 02:26 pm at 2:26 pm |
  9. stungun

    I love how seriously these idiot politicians in both parties take themselves. It's a good thing they are not in charge of anything important!

    November 21, 2013 02:26 pm at 2:26 pm |
  10. RJ


    Finally! Now let's move forward and help the President succeed!
    This is where the Dems are wrong.
    It's not about the President succeeding.
    Changing the rules so your team can "win" is a sign of a failure in leadership.
    Nobody won.

    November 21, 2013 02:26 pm at 2:26 pm |
  11. Who's fooling whom?

    Republicans tried to obstruct Obamacare too. They were unsuccessful and look what happened.

    November 21, 2013 02:26 pm at 2:26 pm |
  12. JY

    About time.

    November 21, 2013 02:26 pm at 2:26 pm |
  13. averageamericanblogger

    The Democrats become more extreme and dictatorial by the day.

    November 21, 2013 02:26 pm at 2:26 pm |
  14. RomneyWho

    Go get em Harry, give em an H with an E followed by LL, Harry! LOL! I love it! 🙂

    November 21, 2013 02:27 pm at 2:27 pm |
  15. Hal Plutinam

    I guarantee this one will come back to bite the Dems when they are no longer in the majority. And the first people complaining about it will be those that support this move now. Rules and processes are there for a reason. Like it or not, you don't change the rules in the middle of the game simply to ensure your teams victory. Personally, I'm Independent and could not care less about either of these 2 parties but this sets a bad precedent.

    November 21, 2013 02:27 pm at 2:27 pm |
  16. Tom

    I challenge the author to come up with a single example of how anything could get "more divisive" :-).

    November 21, 2013 02:27 pm at 2:27 pm |
  17. A Citizen

    The filibuster – standing up and talking to make your point and convince others of your position – died when it became a simple THREAT of a filibuster where nobody had to do anything other than say the word. The problem is that in order to really filibuster you have to have an argument - and the so-called filibusters of both parties have degenerated into simple partisanship. Killing all filibusters is needed. I disagree that it will drive more partisanship – it should force the minority to come out its isolation and actually talk and negotiate with the majority on substantive pragmatic terms. Gee, there might actually be coalition building across the aisle for sensible amendments. What a concept!

    November 21, 2013 02:27 pm at 2:27 pm |
  18. averageamericanblogger

    Democrats become more extreme and dictatorial by the day.

    November 21, 2013 02:27 pm at 2:27 pm |
  19. Kyle G.

    Wow...just wow...this doesn't move anything forward other than the President's appointments to seats of the judiciary and the cabinet. It is self serving at it's finest.

    November 21, 2013 02:27 pm at 2:27 pm |
  20. NameCraig

    What is happening is another betrayal of our constitution by a addm. That is looking more and more like a socialist gov. Every day. The Idea behind two parties it to ensure one doesn't change our country to bend to it wishes. The word Democratic is now replaced with Obamaism or Communism . Another sad day for America. I bet you brainwashed liberals are dancing in the streets, To bad your so blinded by hate for this country that you don't reconize it's democratic demise

    November 21, 2013 02:27 pm at 2:27 pm |
  21. justaguy

    e embry and fr114 are stupid – no one is getting richer off any of this – and people are dumb to keep bringing up the Koch Bros – they have counterparts in the liberal side – and Harry Reid will regret this one day – the pendulum swings both ways – they lost their spine when they don't stand up to Obumer!

    November 21, 2013 02:28 pm at 2:28 pm |
  22. DonTheGreen

    Democrats are behaving like Lemmings. Just because the prez is a D doesn't mean you have to go down his ultra liberal path. Thank God for GOP blocking some of the ridiculous nominations that would undermine American society. This President is dangerous, and the Democratic Party is helping to sink a system and culture that is what made this country great. The road to Greece and beyond.

    November 21, 2013 02:28 pm at 2:28 pm |
  23. Edwin

    This is what happens when the minority blocks every appointment for – literally – years, not because the appointees are bad in any way, but in protest over other things.

    After PROMISING in June to no longer obstruct appointments except for things to do with that appointee, Graham chose to make a filibuster on this one because he was mad about Benghazi. Well, really because he is facing reelection and has Tea Party challengers - so he wanted to look really anti-Obama. But regardless, he is on record as saying that he wants to block the appointee for reasons having NOTHING TO DO WITH THE APPOINTEE.

    This filibuster reform is a long time coming. There is nothing in the Constitution about it - nothing to suggest the Founding Fathers thought it was a reasonable thing to have. And until 2008 it was used sparingly. Now it is used on virtually every appointee.

    November 21, 2013 02:28 pm at 2:28 pm |
  24. liberals love nukes now?

    just remember the precedents being broken here - if you are cheering the dems because you are one of them... remember to cheer the republicans when they take control – because you SUPPORTED this new lower margin vote rule!

    November 21, 2013 02:28 pm at 2:28 pm |
  25. Rob

    About time the democrats grew a backbone. If the GOP showed more concern for the American people and not just their political party and special interests then this would not have come to pass.

    November 21, 2013 02:28 pm at 2:28 pm |
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