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. Frank S

    The GOP was probably going to do it as soon as they became the majority if Reid didn't do it now. They have only themselves to blame. Filibusters have simply been abused into a key obstruction tool, as opposed to the original intent of being used on a conscientious basis in a responsible way. It's like some bully at elementary school messes up some priviledge on the playground for everybody. Welcome to GOP slash and burn politics folks.

    November 21, 2013 10:44 am at 10:44 am |
  2. nuclear mike

    Go ahead Harry Reid...make our day!!! Then you & the Democrats will pay at the polls with your party being thrown out of office!!!
    The balance of power has to be maintained and Obama has to compromise before he is allowed to ram his nominees thru without restrictions!!!

    November 21, 2013 10:45 am at 10:45 am |
  3. Colo001

    Please make the bad man from Nevada stop. How much more control does this guy want to take away from the people? He is bad for America

    November 21, 2013 10:45 am at 10:45 am |
  4. HowCanYouBelieveAWordHeSaysAnymore

    Chicago Politics: When you can't get your change the rules.

    November 21, 2013 10:45 am at 10:45 am |
  5. tannim

    Let them play that card. It will blow up in their faces, and deservedly so.

    November 21, 2013 10:47 am at 10:47 am |

    I don't know why all this delay. THE FIRST thing the Republicans will do...if they take the to "pull the handle" on the nuclear option. I would guess, they'll put it through on the first day!

    November 21, 2013 10:48 am at 10:48 am |
  7. Eric

    Just remember Harry, these things work both ways, you won't always be in power.

    November 21, 2013 10:51 am at 10:51 am |
  8. hgflyer

    @Dallas: Kind of like when Democrats wouldn't support Bush's nominees, either, huh? Partisan obstruction is nothing new, and it happens both ways.

    November 21, 2013 10:51 am at 10:51 am |
  9. Bobjohnson

    Why is it that both the dems and republicans seem so hellbent on destroying our democracy.

    November 21, 2013 10:52 am at 10:52 am |
  10. DaveinIL

    What a foolish move! It will come back to haunt the Democrats if they push this through.
    Many Americans already think the Congress is a joke and do not like that the Democrats pushed through Obamacare screwup unilaterally.Taking more power to push through other actions on a partisan basis will not improve there standing except with the most liberal.

    November 21, 2013 10:52 am at 10:52 am |
  11. The New Terrorist

    Hary Reid – Joseph Stalin is looking like a better option than having you stay in the Senate!

    November 21, 2013 10:53 am at 10:53 am |
  12. Ron L

    Hello, EVERYONE. The current use of he filibuster has been abusive to say the least. The need to get 67 senators out of 100 to agree to change the rules is absurd by any standard. ALL of you so-called FOLLOWERS of the founding fathers need to READ your Constitution. You will see the Senate was set up so that a simple majority could pass MOST legislation. The idea was to make elections count, and prevent the very abuse we have seen in the last 5 years by the minority party. As an Independent voter who is tired of seeing dead lock in t Senate I welcome simple majority to rule on things like:
    1) Background checks where 80% of Americans want it and it did not pass.
    2) Where 75% of American would like a higher minimum wages but it will never get 67 Senators to vote yes
    3) 70% of Americans want Immigration Reform, but it also will never get 67 yes votes in the Senate.
    So, lets change the Senate rules back to what is written in the Constitution and just see if it helps America move forward because we have been stuck for 5 years.

    November 21, 2013 10:54 am at 10:54 am |
  13. ShawnDH

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

    Dems passed the ACA through a perfectly legitimate process of debate and vote and the law was upheld by the Supreme Court and passed a referendum by American voters in 2012. And a majority of Americans want to keep and improve Obamacare, so yes it's working fine. Only right-wing nuts are OBSESSED with Obamacare. Everybody else wants it to work, which it will.

    November 21, 2013 10:54 am at 10:54 am |
  14. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    The DSCC called me yesterday and asked me for a donation; I answered, why give money to you so that you can elect more gutless wonders? – and hung up
    Data I couldn't agree with you more.
    I get barraged via e-mails....DELETE.
    Not one more nickle until they get their stuff together, toughen up and stop letting these semi-coherent GOP bullies get over on them.
    Stop the blah, blah, blah already and just do it.

    November 21, 2013 10:55 am at 10:55 am |
  15. Mike Texonma

    Republicans cry foul but they are the ones who have so abused the existing rule that its abolition has become necessary. Elections have to be respected, and the business of the country does not come to a halt. All of this gnashing of teeth over the nuclear consequences, necessitated by their obstructionist mentality, is simple hypocracy.

    November 21, 2013 10:55 am at 10:55 am |
  16. ug

    Sorry Harriett...your not going to change the rules for your own benefit to shove more crap down our throat...

    November 21, 2013 10:56 am at 10:56 am |
  17. sammy750

    Wow, stupid McConnell ranting on the floor continue his lies. McConnell will be fired in 2014. McConnell says Reid is breaking the Senate Rules. R Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was 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.

    November 21, 2013 10:56 am at 10:56 am |
  18. MickeyOregon

    It isn't as if they care a whit for the nation anyway.

    November 21, 2013 10:56 am at 10:56 am |
  19. slammy

    Doesn't a rule change like this have to be done at the opening of a term? It is then that they adopt the rules for the session, right?

    November 21, 2013 10:56 am at 10:56 am |
  20. cheryl

    thought this was about nuke option, but he we go again with MCCONNELL about this the only thing they can talk about... so sick of it.........can't even have a debate on the issue in hand....

    November 21, 2013 10:57 am at 10:57 am |
  21. Sniffit

    "The controversial move is a rules change that could make a partisan environment even more divisive"

    How? How could it possibly get "more divisive" than what we already have, which is the GOP/Teatrolls trying to nullify the election results, nullify the powers granted to the POTUS by the Constitution, nullify our laws and essentially nullify the federal gov't as a form of secession? Unless you can explain how things actually get "more divisive" than that, then your statement is nothing more than ipse dixit sensationalism and false equivalence manufacture.

    November 21, 2013 10:57 am at 10:57 am |
  22. Trilobiteme

    I'm am an independent but this is a bad move by Harry Reid. I'm am financially liberal and a follower of Jesus Christ, There are a lot of elections in Red States in 2014 and the senate can easily change hands. It would hurt the party when they are in the minority. They should keep with traditions.

    November 21, 2013 10:57 am at 10:57 am |
  23. L

    The Republicans only really like Democracy when they are in the White House. They are not practicing Democracy now and the world is looking at America with dismay. They don't think they can ever win a national election again, with their strange crazy platform, so they are trying to weaken the executive branch. The President can nominate the three judges to the DC court, just as a Republican President could. This is nonsense, and the media should be ashamed of they way they try to pose the GOPs traitorous efforts as reasonable. They are marginalizing themselves right out of existence. Who in their right mind thinks the GOP is working to help Americans. They are not. I hope Sen. Reid goes Nuclear on them. Go Democrats, the true patriots.

    November 21, 2013 10:58 am at 10:58 am |
  24. sammy750

    Senile McConnell continue his ranting. McConnell has no new views, just his continuing LIES. Sit down McConnell, you changed the rules when you want tooo. Shut UP Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was 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. t up McConnell. The Republicans have packed the court, now they are mad since Obama is nominating some new judges, The Republicans want to control all the courts.

    November 21, 2013 10:59 am at 10:59 am |
  25. John Keimig

    The vast majority of nominees are qualified for the positions to which they are nominated. Of those who aren't, virtually all have withdrawn after it became clear that their nomination could not clear an up-down vote. In my lifetime I have seen the filibuster used solely for keeping back nominees either because of political view differences or as a means to hurt the executive agenda of the president.
    This use of the filibuster circumvents the president's right to appoint people of his choice, his political choice. He earned that right by winning a national election. we already have ground rules about when a filibuster can and cannot be used. All we're doing here is tweaking them.

    November 21, 2013 11:00 am at 11:00 am |
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