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. Terry B

    The only way to defeat America's version of the Nazi party is to do this. I see the negatives but the positives, currently are what have to be looked at. Lets kick the obstructionists out of office next year and finally have a congress that works.

    November 21, 2013 02:43 pm at 2:43 pm |
  2. Eastside Milwaukean

    Finally Harry Reid grows a pair! This is a good day. Now the president can get some things done without these nutty conservative tea turds blocking everything.

    November 21, 2013 02:43 pm at 2:43 pm |
  3. Todd

    What comes around goes around

    November 21, 2013 02:43 pm at 2:43 pm |
  4. Vusani

    A "power grab" says Lamar Alexander? What is it when a group decides to hold up the actual work of the government?

    November 21, 2013 02:43 pm at 2:43 pm |
  5. Nodack

    I don't care. The whole thing is busted. Washington is now just a battleground where the two sides attack each other. It's no longer about doing what is right for America, it's now just a war to destroy the other side. If I saw any Republican try to do anything positive for America in the last decade I might feel sorry for them, but the haven't done anything but destroy things. Their plan for health care reform? They don't have one. They only care about sabotaging Obamacare. That's not good enough. If you want me to vote Republican you have to show me you can do better.

    The last Republican President of record took a thriving economy and destroyed it. He doubled the debt, he didn't lower it. He started a war based on lies and fabrications killing hundreds of thousands and spending two trillion dollars, not to mention sacrificing thousands of American in a bid to steal Iraq's oil. Now they attack Obama 24/7/365 and have done absolutely nothing else in four years.

    November 21, 2013 02:43 pm at 2:43 pm |
  6. John

    Well all all know what happens when the Democrats ram through their agend with no Republican say – OBAMACARE anyone!

    November 21, 2013 02:44 pm at 2:44 pm |
  7. Realistic Mo

    Is this any different than when republicans changed house rules so only the majority leader can put senate bills out to vote on? Republicans are such hypocrites.

    November 21, 2013 02:44 pm at 2:44 pm |
  8. Observer

    This is a complete joke. Obama will do anything to get we he wants, no matter what is in his path. All he has is divide this country further than it already was. I dont really care which party the next president comes out of as long as he can work with both parties because the clown we have no refuses to.

    November 21, 2013 02:44 pm at 2:44 pm |
  9. nonyabidnes2

    With congress at odds over something so trivial as this, has me wondering. What's next? Or should I ask that question?

    November 21, 2013 02:44 pm at 2:44 pm |
  10. darthatect

    This is how politics works. What the Dems did is a 'legal' tool, and subject to change in the future. The Repub's will do it too. Quit crying about it. I might not like it if it happens, but if the Repub's get a solid majority, they can use the same rules to do what they will. Every two years there is a chance to change things in the House and Senate. Now...shut up, and govern.

    November 21, 2013 02:44 pm at 2:44 pm |
  11. Heywood

    "I urge my Republican colleagues not to go through with changing these rules. 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," he said on the Senate floor at the time.

    Barrack Obama = F'ing LIAR!

    November 21, 2013 02:44 pm at 2:44 pm |
  12. mary

    This was a case of "had to do it"…
    A majority vote has always been how things worked.. The obstruction using the filibuster has been nothing but a tool for "bad kids on the block" to bully with..
    It had its use.. And when used for the right reasons it was good..
    But you can thank the new young GOP for abusing it and forcing its end..
    Now the vote can be done the way it always was..
    Congress voting and getting things done.
    If only all the young radical congress members would get voted out.. It would be a wonderful day for the people of America..
    Its time we got back to doing the business of working for the good of the country and the people..
    This was totally necessary...

    November 21, 2013 02:44 pm at 2:44 pm |
  13. rick

    It's about time for democrats to stop the republican obstruction!. They did it because the republicans hate Obama and they are trying to change the results of an election!/ Well done democrats!.

    November 21, 2013 02:45 pm at 2:45 pm |
  14. AJmitch85

    Unreal. Our embaracement of a President just looked straight into the camera and lied out of both sides his mouth at once. He mentioned 'when he was a Senator'... when he was a Senator HE DID NOTHING! Didn't Vote. Didn't introduce legislation. The POTUS and Dem's have selective memory and as a democrat – I'm done with you. GOP, here I come, but you guys have a lot of work to do too – you guys are a mess.

    November 21, 2013 02:45 pm at 2:45 pm |
  15. Bubba Ray

    If the Republicans were so concerned about this, they could always change it once they have a majority.

    November 21, 2013 02:45 pm at 2:45 pm |
  16. Dean Nandana

    The only "nuclear option" that would fix Washington D.C. involves actual Plutonium.

    November 21, 2013 02:45 pm at 2:45 pm |
  17. mike

    Hey Liberal Idiots:

    Just remember, it will swing back the other way someday. And you'll be whining about the rules that YOU changed. How dumb do you think Americans are? Oops...don't answer that, look at the white house.

    November 21, 2013 02:45 pm at 2:45 pm |
  18. fred

    well maybe if you gave them all some cocaine- things would move along faster

    November 21, 2013 02:45 pm at 2:45 pm |
  19. Don

    Its a dictatorship. Anything Obama wants he get with stupid democrats as Obama's puppets.
    I hope this changes next year.

    November 21, 2013 02:46 pm at 2:46 pm |
  20. Jobu

    LONG overdue.

    November 21, 2013 02:46 pm at 2:46 pm |
  21. Frank

    'So This Is How Liberty Dies...With Thunderous Applause' – Padme Amadala

    November 21, 2013 02:46 pm at 2:46 pm |
  22. NickAnast

    Don Quixote
    "2014 is coming. It will be interesting to see how Mr. Reid feels about this rule change after the election."

    Since he'll still be majority leader, I don't think he'll mind. Of the 14 Republicans up for election next year, 7 already have primary challengers and Susan Collins could well be #8. In states like Mississippi (Thad Cochran) and Georgia (the retiring Saxby Chambliss), Tea Party candidates could turn safe GOP seats into pickup opportunities for Democrats. Kentucky could go Dem even if McConnell survives his primary. And in all cases, the RNC and RSCC will have to expend money and resources in the primary that could have been used in other races.

    Add to that West Virginia, which could be to 2014 what Delaware was in 2010 (popular House Republican is shoo-in to win open seat vacated by a Dem, but gets knocked off in primary by Tea Party candidate who can't win in November), and the GOP could find itself needing to pick off 9 Dem seats instead of 6. That won't happen. They only needed to pick off 4 in 2012; they got 1.

    November 21, 2013 02:46 pm at 2:46 pm |
  23. ShawnDH


    Republicans...this is what happens when you abuse the system and block the will of the people. Since we all know there will never be another Republican president until they change everything they believe, this is WIN WIN for the Democrats. WIN WIN WIN WIN.

    November 21, 2013 02:46 pm at 2:46 pm |
  24. Realist

    "The GOP is visceral in its hatred for government because of a black man in charge" – ImvotingforHillary

    You poor soul. If that's what you need to tell yourself to help cover-up the incompetence of this President, then keep posting these rants of yours.

    November 21, 2013 02:46 pm at 2:46 pm |
  25. eww

    Perhaps the Senate will get something done as opposed to being thwarted at each and every bend in the road by the party of NO or sometimes referred to as the party of obstructionist or commonly referred to as senate republicans.

    November 21, 2013 02:47 pm at 2:47 pm |
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