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. Sussay

    Boo ya!

    November 21, 2013 03:52 pm at 3:52 pm |
  2. Dave - Phx

    Haha at teh Cry Party.

    November 21, 2013 03:52 pm at 3:52 pm |
  3. jrt1098

    This is nothing more than a ploy by Harry Reid to divert attention away from the Health Care Law debacle.
    LIBERAL DEMOCRATS like to play games and call Republicans obstructionists, while continually railing on the TEA PARTY ! Well ... it TURNS OUT those nasty TEA PARTY people were ... RIGHT
    RATHER than worry about the conservative ring of the opposition ... LIBERAL DEMOCRATS need to start worrying about the most radical Far Left politician in America's history ... taking the whole Democratic Party down the drain with him ... Barack Obama may in fact make it next to impossible to elect our NEXT black President !!!

    November 21, 2013 03:52 pm at 3:52 pm |
  4. Thaddius

    Francine: it wasn't brashly abused as much as it has the last couple of years. So what's your point?

    November 21, 2013 03:53 pm at 3:53 pm |
  5. iowajoe56

    More than a few commenters are leaping off the bridge here. The rule change ending obstruction is limited to two specific situations concerning non-Supreme court appointments to our judicial system. It isn't remotely the end of the world and it is a reasonable response to constant "call in" filibustering serving no useful purpose. As to the tyranny of the majority, that is difficult to maintain in a republic if its citizens actually pay attention and vote responsibly.

    November 21, 2013 03:53 pm at 3:53 pm |
  6. The REAL Truth...

    @M – IF the republican party is prejudice then why are they for DR Ben Carson.
    For the same reason the supported Cain – they thought it would influence a segment of voters that traditionally tend to vote Dem.

    November 21, 2013 03:53 pm at 3:53 pm |
  7. Eddie Quinn

    Dictator – A ruler having absolute authority and supreme jurisdiction over the government of a state; especially one who is considered tyrannical or oppressive. I can't make up my mind who comes closer to fitting this bill more, Obama or Reid? And, No, I'm not a Tea Party member, but I do have the ability to think for myself without the assistance of any political party. A great start would be to fire them all and impose term limits – one term, two at the most!

    November 21, 2013 03:53 pm at 3:53 pm |
  8. michael

    Whether Dems or Repubs are in the majority, majority rule should prevail. Abuse of these filibusters has gone far enough. It was different when they had to stay on their feet for 24 hours (like Storm Thurmond did). Now, they scream filibuster and hold up any meaningful business without breaking a sweat. Stalling judge appointments to get one's way on another issue is immature and obviously doesn't accomplish anything.

    November 21, 2013 03:53 pm at 3:53 pm |
  9. Rachel

    What I find interesting is that Obama, back in 2005, said that this was such a terrible thing. But now that his signature piece of legislation has turned out to be a heaping pile of crapppp, I guess he has to do something to appease his party.

    November 21, 2013 03:53 pm at 3:53 pm |
  10. DD

    If Republican obstruction is America's successful legislative process, God help us all!!

    November 21, 2013 03:54 pm at 3:54 pm |
  11. ShawnDH

    Josh wrote: "Tyranny should not be acceptable to any American on either side."

    Exactly, which is why Democrats acted. The will of the people will not be ignored.

    November 21, 2013 03:54 pm at 3:54 pm |
  12. Thaddius

    Bunnie: the "I've got mine, good luck with your sucker" line has been the Republicans mantra since Reagan. How can you be so blind and ignorant?

    November 21, 2013 03:54 pm at 3:54 pm |
  13. Jeff

    Well, lets see what happens should the Republicans manage to take control next year....

    November 21, 2013 03:54 pm at 3:54 pm |
  14. c-lo


    I hated to see them do this, but this is what must be done when your dealing with Tea Party 2 year olds whose mommy wouldn't buy them the candy bar at the checkout lane back in November.
    ha ha seems like it's the dems who were spoiled for 2 years of full control, and once we finally got a House to step in and put a stop sign, it's the dem's who are whining and stomping their feet. the checking account is negative, the credit cards are maxed out, DC's income is dropping because they stagnate the economy with these BS policies and now cannot understand why they cannot have their cake and eat it too...

    November 21, 2013 03:55 pm at 3:55 pm |
  15. Dallas

    Sen. Reid did the only thing he could. There is no reasoning with these republican tea bag obstructionists and these positions need to be filled. These people are more than qualified for the judicial positions – the tea bags just do nothing but harp and harp about the ACA which, by the way, IS THE LAW OF THE LAND!!!! Kudos to you Sen. Reid and your fellow Democrats for having the guts to stand up to McConnell, Cruz and the rest of the tea bags!

    November 21, 2013 03:55 pm at 3:55 pm |
  16. KeninTexas

    The Democrats in the Senate just got played fools. They don't realize that Obama is going to be gone in 2016 and all he wants is to get his agenda done before he leaves. But he threw all of these Senators under the bus, because even if they might get re-elected, they will then have to deal with the inevitable Republican take over of congress, which only needs the 51 votes now. Todays' Dems got played the fool by not the Republicans, but by their own leadership.

    November 21, 2013 03:55 pm at 3:55 pm |
  17. Dwayne Hopkins

    All, this from a Democrat Party who says they are will to work with Republicans. All I see is the Democrats party blaming others for their failures. Kids trying to get their way at any cost. Even when the Republicans suggested a one year delay of ACA Democrats refused and now many are asking for delays or changing the laws. The very same thing Republicans pointed out from the beginning. The bottom lines is, it is the Democrats who are refusing to compromise and pushing policy/laws on Americans that we do not want. Democrats need to look at the laws and see how it affect the middle class instead of passing laws without reading them. What goes around comes around "Democrats".

    November 21, 2013 03:55 pm at 3:55 pm |
  18. Heisenberg

    Checks and balances were the foundation of our 3-tiered system of government. It was designed this way so that one party could not rig the system in their favor when they only represent half of the population. However in the 21st century Democrat's mind, checks and balances are called obstructionism. If you and your beliefs do not match with theirs then obviously the system must be changed so the dissenters' power is inconsequential... This goes against the principles of a republican democracy. It seems more like something out of a totalitarian government.

    November 21, 2013 03:55 pm at 3:55 pm |
  19. Veritas

    Wow...they must really be smelling their own death in 2014, if they are willing to trash two-centuries of cooperation and respect...kind of like when they rammed through Obamacare with a rejected, lame-duck majority in the House. And we all can see how well THAT worked out for America!

    November 21, 2013 03:55 pm at 3:55 pm |
  20. Meyer

    Dems did the exact same thing to Bush's appointees, but now they conveniently forget about that. The republican's didn't change anything in the House of Reps, it is required to create new rules before each session. The level of ignorance among the democrats on this board is astounding, and exactly what people like Obama and Reid are playing to.

    November 21, 2013 03:55 pm at 3:55 pm |
  21. Barnacle Bill

    All Democcrats are alike. Just a bunch of whining, self-serving sleazy politicians.

    November 21, 2013 03:56 pm at 3:56 pm |
  22. ShawnDH

    CryBabies cried: "FY Harry Reid. You can't be gone too soon. I truly hope this is your demise ....Gawd knows your brains were in the toilet when you and Madam Pelosi engineered Obamacare. This is just trhe crown on the weasel."

    Who is crying over this and Obamacare? YOU. And by the way, Obamacare is a conservative idea which was engineered by the conservative Heritage Foundation. Surprisingly, it works.

    November 21, 2013 03:56 pm at 3:56 pm |
  23. Brandon

    Lol. And once Republicans take back over this law will be terrible right?

    November 21, 2013 03:56 pm at 3:56 pm |
  24. Humor_At_All_Costs

    I'm not sure I understand what this is all about, and I'm not all that interested in politics. But I have to wonder, is there any other reason besides the fact that Obama is now in power, to explain why he did not approve of this in 2005, but now he does? Is that just typical politics at work? Or am I missing something?

    November 21, 2013 03:56 pm at 3:56 pm |
  25. Anonymous

    Remember these are the same people who gave us Obama Care are now going to appoint what ever judge without any check or balance.

    November 21, 2013 03:56 pm at 3:56 pm |
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