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. opinion8it

    It's about time

    November 21, 2013 03:01 pm at 3:01 pm |
  2. tankrothchild

    It's time to seriously discuss impeachment proceedings before he uses an executive order and gives himself another term. Obama's ego is seriously hurt and there is nothing more dangerous than a wounded animal.

    November 21, 2013 03:01 pm at 3:01 pm |
  3. md

    i'd almost be on board with this thing......if Obama was capable of appointing a single person capable of doing the job rather than more empty suit politicians for each job. This will backfire for the Dems

    November 21, 2013 03:01 pm at 3:01 pm |
  4. Lee

    FINALLY!!! Democrats get some balls! ENOUGH IS ENOUGH, and this country has had enough of the Republicans obstructing EVERYTHING!

    November 21, 2013 03:02 pm at 3:02 pm |
  5. Marie

    Finally Obama grew a pair

    November 21, 2013 03:02 pm at 3:02 pm |
  6. ShawnDH

    Eric whined: "The democrats will rue the day they did this."

    Your old-timey villain schtick is not scary. Right now, you are "rue-ing the day" your party became the pathological obstruction party, huh?

    November 21, 2013 03:02 pm at 3:02 pm |
  7. Rooster

    He supports it now. But he didn't. And he won't again soon enough...opportunist.

    November 21, 2013 03:02 pm at 3:02 pm |
  8. columbus

    Off with their heads!

    November 21, 2013 03:02 pm at 3:02 pm |
  9. Ian

    This is the punishment for the baggers doing absolutely nothing

    November 21, 2013 03:03 pm at 3:03 pm |
  10. Alley

    New day in america

    November 21, 2013 03:03 pm at 3:03 pm |
  11. P.J.

    Actually, it was less than 5 million votes, but that doesn't sound as dramatic (4,982,296) It was out of 126,849,296 people. He only won 51.1% of the popular vote which means 48.9% of voters didn't want him and 47.2 % voted for Romney. So, basically only 5 in 10 Americans voted for him. But, "over 5 million votes" does make it sound like it was a landslide and he has a mandate. But, maybe check his approval ratings to see how popular he is right now. Regardless, this is a dangerous step for the Senate Dems and might bite them badly if the Republicans win back the senate in 2014. We’ll see how many young voters come out for the Dems in 2014 and 2016 after they’ve had a year or 3 under the generation raping that is Obamacare.

    November 21, 2013 03:03 pm at 3:03 pm |
  12. Steve Niemyer

    The people elect democrats thinking they will do what is right and stuff like this happens. In the next election the people will vote republicans to power and they will remain there until they too, do something like this. It is a never ending cycle.

    November 21, 2013 03:03 pm at 3:03 pm |
  13. Bito

    The RETHUGLICANS did the same exact thing in the house of representatives by giving sole power to the house majority leader, Eric Cantor, To bring a bill to a vote, Like the goverment shutdown, Now that they turned the tables on them in the senate they claim it`s not fair? What a bunch of HYPOCRITES!!! It`s OK for them to do it but when it is done to them they throw a tantrum, Just like Ted Cruz did by shuting down the goverment for his political agenda!!!!!!!!!!!

    November 21, 2013 03:03 pm at 3:03 pm |
  14. JG

    It's not going to matter, because if Republicans keep the status quo, they're not going to be the majority of anything for a while.

    November 21, 2013 03:03 pm at 3:03 pm |
  15. kamarasune

    They just killed the voice of the minority...

    November 21, 2013 03:03 pm at 3:03 pm |
  16. Megamind

    Not saying that all of the filibusters the last 6 years have been justified or right, because many have not been. However, doing what was done today is also not a good thing. Just another step toward socialism.

    November 21, 2013 03:03 pm at 3:03 pm |
  17. Jim

    So just for nominations and not for filibustering everything else? Gah! Just make them stand at the very least instead of just threaten a filibuster. I can't believe how misused it's been. This and garrymandering has made a joke of our democracy!

    November 21, 2013 03:04 pm at 3:04 pm |
  18. ChrisM

    This is what happens to you Freaking Obstructionist republicans when you fillibuster 400 TIMES.

    November 21, 2013 03:04 pm at 3:04 pm |
  19. Clint

    The funny thing is, this is some how being done to suggest they will get anything done. When in reality, it is just because next year is an election year and Obamacare is killing DEMS chance at reelection.

    November 21, 2013 03:04 pm at 3:04 pm |
  20. Anonymous

    I dont blame them The R have been holding up nominees for years based on issues not even related. If theres a problem with the nominee I agree but stopping a nominee for another issue entirely is just ransom.

    November 21, 2013 03:04 pm at 3:04 pm |
  21. kamarasune

    They just trampled the minority and killed their voice....

    November 21, 2013 03:04 pm at 3:04 pm |
  22. Cody

    Ugh, career politicians are the worst

    November 21, 2013 03:05 pm at 3:05 pm |
  23. Sniffit

    "They are governed by these hard over, newer members of Democratic senators"

    Hahahahaha...that's right McGrumpy, when in doubt and all else fails, just resort to projecting the Teatroll situation and their behavior onto the Dems. What a buffoon.

    November 21, 2013 03:05 pm at 3:05 pm |
  24. HeyHey

    Just outlaw congress democrats, just finish the job. You have made the representative process your target now go for the kill.

    Oh, since we now have a parliament, lets have a confidence vote on Obama.

    November 21, 2013 03:05 pm at 3:05 pm |
  25. Jonathon

    The only rule change I want to see is term limits on people serving in the House and the Senate. So many of them are out of touch with reality, and it's time for them to move on. The same people that said they wanted to make changes 20 years ago are saying the same thing today.

    November 21, 2013 03:05 pm at 3:05 pm |
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