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. Jean Sartre

    A Person – are you a TP/GOP paid troll or are you just a recently escapee from Bellevue?

    The Senate is suppose to be the "deliberative body;" in the last four and a half years they have been little more than the House of Representatives (HoRs) on steroids...

    This move was long overdue; and it is the correct one!

    I am just surprised that it took so long... Now if we could only deal with the Supreme Court, something like making it mandatory retirement at age 67 or if you had unexplainable electric charges going off in your brain, like Chief Justice John Roberts has...

    November 21, 2013 03:57 pm at 3:57 pm |
  2. John Johnson

    Finally Democrats are showing some courage and balls. Republicans are doomed. They will be in an even minority during the next 2 elections. And they can only blame it on the terrorist group known as The Tea Party.

    November 21, 2013 03:57 pm at 3:57 pm |
  3. Rodger Olsen

    It's a pure and simple power grab that would make any South American Socialist proud.

    November 21, 2013 03:57 pm at 3:57 pm |
  4. ggenua

    Wait... I thought liberals were for minorities? Oh, I see.... only when it suits them.

    November 21, 2013 03:57 pm at 3:57 pm |
  5. Flagship, NC

    It's about time! It's about time! It's about time! It's about time!
    Our government has been held to ransom for too long.
    Give em hell Harry!.....we have your back!

    November 21, 2013 03:57 pm at 3:57 pm |
  6. bill

    Obama in 2005: "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.

    This is called "situational ethics" which is the same as no ethics at all.

    November 21, 2013 03:58 pm at 3:58 pm |
  7. cluebattingcage

    Huh. When they were in the minority, Obama said that it was "not good for democracy". Not good for our country.

    But of course, Republican opposition is "not normal", so it's ok. I see. Well, "Fundamental Transformation" is not normal either. Maybe it's a reaction to your revolutionary agenda, Mr. President.

    November 21, 2013 03:58 pm at 3:58 pm |
  8. Richard

    About time. While the filibuster has a purpose, the Republicans were totally abusing it. You can't run a government if no one can be appointed, except with the full approval of the party that lost the election. (Well, you can, but it's closer to what Lenin's Soviet Union had.) Compromise is important, but when the losing side begins by saying "Give us half and then talk about what else you'll give up" it's time to play hardball. I wish Obama knew that from day one.

    November 21, 2013 03:58 pm at 3:58 pm |
  9. Rick

    Get this garbage out of the senate.

    November 21, 2013 03:58 pm at 3:58 pm |
  10. Realityblowz

    Check out the video online of Joe Biden saying why the nuclear option was wrong, and bad, eight years ago.

    November 21, 2013 03:59 pm at 3:59 pm |
  11. DH

    The action was long overdue. If Republican obstructionists would stop trying to nullify last year's election, it would not have gotten to this point. Democrats won last year's election. We have a black Democrat in the White House. Majority rules. ACCEPT IT! We will keep the Senate and we are taking back the House next year. And it will be a decade or more at least before you deluded loons control anything else.

    November 21, 2013 03:59 pm at 3:59 pm |
  12. Rob

    Dems are loving this, but absolute power corrupts absolutely. The people (democrate and republican) will be the losers in this in the long run.

    November 21, 2013 03:59 pm at 3:59 pm |
  13. c-lo


    About time dems started playing offense.
    What do you mean? I have always found dems like Reid and Pelosi offensive.

    November 21, 2013 03:59 pm at 3:59 pm |
  14. Daniel P. Hanover

    The liberal media only a few years ago vilified the Republicans when they suggested they would use the "nuclear option". Now that Harry [G]Reid has actually don it, I'm sure the liberal media will lionize him. However, Democrats will rue this day in the near future, as I predict they will lose their majority in the Senate in 2014. And then the Republicans will have their VENGEANCE.

    November 21, 2013 03:59 pm at 3:59 pm |
  15. sm5574

    @Tif, Obama has no guts whatsoever. He lies and tells people exactly what they want to hear, regardless of the facts. He blames others for his failure of leadership. He does everything he can to further divide this country along racial and political lines. He is not a leader; he is a wimp.

    November 21, 2013 04:00 pm at 4:00 pm |
  16. Michelle

    For all of those talking about "when" the Republicans get control of the Senate and how this will bite Democrats in the bum. did you read for comprehension:The rules change only applies to executive and judicial nominees, not Supreme Court nominees. This does not have anything to do with filibusters regarding other legislative matters. And even the right has to look at the number of filibusters in the last 5 years and recognize that they are only filibustering to be obstructionist.

    November 21, 2013 04:00 pm at 4:00 pm |
  17. David

    I am a Canadian, but it sickened me on how you Americans think. I follow American politics most often but some one to think before you write. Do you remember this bill was introduced last year by senate minority lead Mitch McConnell and he went ahead to vote against his own bill and now democrats help him out with republican bill and you morons start crying again. You guys a lucky your fore fathers build a solid foundation for you guys if not by now Haiti would have been better than you guys now. Just always looking to drag other countries down with your bunch of illiterates politician and Racist and some of you have audacity coming here to talk like fools and uneducated idiots. Sorry America no offence but angry the way things are been handled they like juntas

    November 21, 2013 04:00 pm at 4:00 pm |
  18. nc1965

    It's about time that the Democrats grew some cojones.

    November 21, 2013 04:00 pm at 4:00 pm |
  19. Thatguy371

    Repubs... get mad all you want. The crapola will stop. You've proven you'll shut down the entire govt to try to get your way. The dems are proving they want the govt to work. Don't like it? Don't run for re-election.

    November 21, 2013 04:01 pm at 4:01 pm |
  20. Goddog

    The Republicans are complaining. I am a democrat and I'm not sure how I feel about this. One thing that I do know; None of those complaining Republicans will be arguing to change it back, if and when they become the majority again, will they?

    November 21, 2013 04:01 pm at 4:01 pm |
  21. Red

    Another few steps towards the Great God King Obama's New Kingdom Hall

    November 21, 2013 04:01 pm at 4:01 pm |
  22. Jasmine Lindros

    If this is such a disaster, the Republicans will be sure to change it back as soon as they get the majority. Right? Riiiiiiight?

    November 21, 2013 04:01 pm at 4:01 pm |
  23. Macbeth


    And the DOW jumps back over 16000! I guess big business likes the fact that the Republicans can't hold up congress anymore.
    Or, maybe it's the $85 billion the feds are pumping into the markets every month? Can't be. Must be investors don't like Republicans.

    November 21, 2013 04:01 pm at 4:01 pm |
  24. KBarr

    I saw some comments on here that seem to think the current administration has reduced the debt? and is saving the world so to speak? what planet are you people on? did you just fly in from Dem-O-topia? rigged figures on jobs etc before the last election – what difference does it make now, he has the "job" .. all the truth distortions (aka lies) – it is unbelievable what some still "believe". desperately clinging to the yellow brick road promises of the recent past.

    November 21, 2013 04:02 pm at 4:02 pm |
  25. Thaddius

    Sorry Lisa, but if your child is abusing their puppy, you gotta take the puppy away.

    This wouldn't be necessary if the Republicans weren't such little children.

    November 21, 2013 04:02 pm at 4:02 pm |
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