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. George

    "they will pay a very, very heavy price for it." – McCain.
    No, the people in this land will pay the price because come January or February or whenever the next debt ceiling debate is, neither side will not work with the other and WE will suffer.

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

    Of course the idiot agrees with the evil democ-rats I pray for the death of those who feel they are better than the american people.

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

    In case you guys didn't read the article, this only applies to these particular types of nominations. They're all free to fillibuster everything else until the cows come home.

    November 21, 2013 03:10 pm at 3:10 pm |
  4. Name gerber geebee

    Democrats are preparing for their soon to be loss of the majority thanks to obamacare. They will keep destroying this country through judicial activism when they loss the senate then the white house.

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

    Democrats are so stupid, they don't even realize what Obama and Ried have just done to them.

    November 21, 2013 03:11 pm at 3:11 pm |
  6. Regal05

    It will be interesting in late 2014 when republicans run the senate what they will say then. We don't want to hear any whinign or complaining when the republicans roll over them on appointments and other issues as well. What's good for the elephant is good for the donkey.

    November 21, 2013 03:11 pm at 3:11 pm |
  7. Bob Batson

    IN 12 months the Repubs will have Senate and they'll jam it down the Dems. throat.

    November 21, 2013 03:11 pm at 3:11 pm |
  8. Darren

    What do the Democrats think they are going to accomplish by doing this. We still have the budget talks, as well as the debt ceiling to deal with, in the next few months. Don't they see consequences? Not only that, but this undermines what our government is supposed to be about.

    I am a registered independent, and I vote heavily Democrat. At this point, I can see myself never voting again. It just doesn't matter. The U.S. Government will do what it wants to do, whenever and wherever it wants. We are voiceless citizens.

    November 21, 2013 03:11 pm at 3:11 pm |
  9. txan

    Way to go Harry! Minorty rule in the Senate is history.

    November 21, 2013 03:12 pm at 3:12 pm |
  10. BB

    The current Republicans don't like it ...... it MUST be a good thing.

    November 21, 2013 03:12 pm at 3:12 pm |
  11. G D

    Ted Cruz read "Green Eggs & Ham" during his filibuster. Please, it's about time we changed this antiquated procedure. We need our reps on both sides to use every minute working, not blocking work. Although I'm a GOP centrist (non-sequiter), elections are how we can change the composition of government, and frankly, there are very few in either house that should remain in office after what we've seen over the last several years.

    November 21, 2013 03:12 pm at 3:12 pm |
  12. Tony Harrison

    The Dems along with their media helpers like CNN will probably find a way to successfully get the filibuster reinstated when the Republicans rule the Senate. Republicans are just that politically inept. I almost feel sorry for them.

    November 21, 2013 03:12 pm at 3:12 pm |
  13. Anonymous

    That's cute and all, Mr. Reid and I'm sure they'll be no complaining in the future from the democrats when a republican majority decides to use the nuclear option to beat back your party's filibusters. Right?!

    November 21, 2013 03:12 pm at 3:12 pm |
  14. Name

    make your own money and tell me how you feel when the government wants to take it and give it away, then tell me the republicans are only out to help the wealthy. I'm disgusted with how ignorant some of our citizens can be.

    November 21, 2013 03:13 pm at 3:13 pm |
  15. zeb Minas

    If you read the rule change carefully, it applies *ONLY* to executive and judicial appointees, but not Supreme Court nominees. So the party in the minority will *still* be able to filibuster proposed bills and most Senate work will go along as before. Lots of crying wolf is what I see.

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


    Obama agrees with 'nuclear option' for filibusters!!

    What is it with us that our reporters have to use military terminology to attract our attention to a political process
    change? 'Bomb' and 'Nuclear option' should rarely find a place in our day to day conversation yet we allow our
    reporters to use Mass Killing language to explain simple things to us.

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

    @Eric – "the republicans will right the ship." – what a self serving, delusional statement that is.

    Were they righting the ship when they shut down the government? Were they righting the ship when they filed over 400 filibusters? Were they righting the ship when they declared their primary mission as ensuring that Obama failed?

    Each and every thing they did led us to this point, where the only *way* to right the ship was to go nuclear.

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

    I love it, the Democrats just shot themselves in the foot twofold, they took away another freedom of the american people and limited themselves the next time a Republican is in office, Ried and Obama don;t care cause they won't have to deal with it.

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

    Another republican screw up.... I'm wondering what took the democrats so long.

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

    This administration's power grab continues. It won't end until our liberties are severely curtailed in the name of "liberalism."

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

    Hey, CNN... does this really warrant GIANT TYPE WITH ALL CAPS – AS IF THE WORLD IS ENDING?
    You are just encouraging the drama between parties, encouraging the us-versus-them narrative. It's a stupid narrative that serves only as a smokescreen to real issues. Maybe if you act less like a gossip site, they will behave less like reality show characters and more like people who actually care what happens in this country.

    November 21, 2013 03:14 pm at 3:14 pm |
  22. Tony in STL

    The repubs have been dropping nukes on the American people ever since President Obama was elected. Heck, ...they actually started dropping b's as soon as they "knew" he'd be elected! It's about time!

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

    Wow I'm having deja vu. Pretty sure a decade ago when Bill Frist was thinking about using the nuclear option Harry Reid was a vocal opponent and did anything in his power to stop it. Now he wants it. And Obama weighing in on the would he know Senate rules; he was never in the chamber during the entire time he was a Senator.This will come to bite them in the ass when they lose seats during the midterms.

    November 21, 2013 03:14 pm at 3:14 pm |
  24. Steven C

    This is a mistake and a misstep for the Democrats and Obama. They will both rue the day this was passed. ... Try 2014 Elections and they will wish they had not passed the nuclear option.

    Wait until the Democrats are the minority and the Democrats will really wish they had not voted for this option.

    A short term gain ... a long term disaster. Do the Democrats think that U.S. Voters are stupid? I suspect the Republicans will repeal this vote after gaining the majority in the Senate ... but ONLY after RUBBING THE DEMOCRATS noses in it repeatedly.

    There are no free lunches and what goes around comes around.

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

    And when, as it inevitably will, the tide turns and they are faced with it themselves, I wonder if the Democrats will just admit they did it to themselves or will they cry and wail about how the Republicans are abusing the system.

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