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. MB

    I've often wondered how filibusters and the Hastert rule,etc. can be reconciled with what democracy is supposed to be about. We elect people to represent us who are there to vote as representatives for the people. Whether we like or representatives or not or agree with their position, when votes are prohibited from going forward not everyone gets represented. Yes, at any given point in time one party will have numbers and the other won't. However, over the long run, we should all have a chance at being represented as we vote our respective represenatives in and out of office.

    November 21, 2013 05:22 pm at 5:22 pm |
  2. Jim

    Make it easier? Isn't there a 95% pass rate already?

    November 21, 2013 05:23 pm at 5:23 pm |
  3. B.O.B.

    President Obama supports this move NOW, not so much as Senator Obama when he decried the Repubs from even considering a change to the filibuster provisions. I guess everything is a matter of perspective.

    November 21, 2013 05:24 pm at 5:24 pm |
  4. thetruth

    It is about time the Democratic principal of majority rule returns to the Senate.

    November 21, 2013 05:24 pm at 5:24 pm |
  5. nonPCrealist

    How amazingly shortsighted.

    November 21, 2013 05:24 pm at 5:24 pm |
  6. lol

    So obama's approval rate is @41% according to CNN which means it is more like 31%, yet he continues to keep digging his presidential grave.

    November 21, 2013 05:24 pm at 5:24 pm |
  7. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    Only way to put a stop to this crap is civil war.
    Is that where you get your guns and we get our guns and we start shooting 'till no one is left standing?
    That will indeed put a stop to everything won't it?

    November 21, 2013 05:24 pm at 5:24 pm |
  8. Brad

    Well, this is yet another thing the forefathers put in place to keep one party from completely rolling over the other. It has worked for over 200 years until the annointed one takes office and now for some reason it no longer works. If you wouldn't nominate the most left fringe for your appointments maybe this would not have had a problem. All I know is when the Dems are not in control of Congress and the Senate in particular there had better be no whining. This just removes another of the checks and balances in government. Not a good day.

    November 21, 2013 05:25 pm at 5:25 pm |
  9. Gary

    The polarization has gotten worse since 2005, and in order to conduct business I believe that Sen. Reed was right to finally put aside the "tradition" of the Senate & move to a point where presidential nominations can be dealt with timely and fairly. That has not been the case for the last five years. It is too bad that Senators McConnell and McCain don't like the change; where were they when the opportunity to work collaboratively on presidential nominations was presented? They begged off. If a future Democratic minority faces merely a simple majority vote on nominations, so be it. Presidents have the right to nominate whom they chose for cabinet and even the judiciary, and the Senate has the obligation to advise and consent. Blocking nominations w/o a vote is not part of the Advise and Consent process.

    November 21, 2013 05:26 pm at 5:26 pm |
  10. maverick19

    harry and obumer must be sleep[ng together there are no leaders , in our country. they spend entirely too much money and no one cares, and people are out of work, some losing their insurance no jobs are available, and our so called leaders don't care, it seems when they get to D.C. THEY FORGOT WHY THEY ARE THERE, it's not to line their pockets like a lot have done. they all need replaced.

    November 21, 2013 05:26 pm at 5:26 pm |
  11. Shelly

    First, to "Lindy500" – If the Democrats lie and cheat, how come most of the Republican Governors are trying to suppress the vote in urban areas. Guess what "Lindy500" to lie and cheat because you can't win an election.
    Can't we just filibustor the Republicans right out the door. You would surely get my vote!!!

    November 21, 2013 05:27 pm at 5:27 pm |
  12. Stribs

    It's a sad commentary on Washington politics that "majority rules" is classified as the "nuclear option."

    November 21, 2013 05:28 pm at 5:28 pm |
  13. Dale Clingerman

    I have a better ides yet! Let's vote them all out of office, and start over! I am sick of both parties. I am 67 years old and remember when such a thing as compromise worked well for us. I long for those good old days. As I was told the other day, when Sam Rayburn was in office a lot of compromise was worked out by he and his alcoholic peers in some bar in DC!

    November 21, 2013 05:28 pm at 5:28 pm |
  14. Ryan

    Well, that's it folks...rules officially do not matter any more and protection from tyranny is dwindling. So the next step is going to be to repeal the 22nd amendment and collect all the votes from the majority of Americans that love the subsidies that Obama loves to promise to his people.

    November 21, 2013 05:28 pm at 5:28 pm |
  15. whatever

    Whenever dems are given a choice they always take the tyrannical authoritarian way to deal with issues.

    November 21, 2013 05:28 pm at 5:28 pm |
  16. Jon

    If you can't win under the current rules, change the rules.

    November 21, 2013 05:29 pm at 5:29 pm |
  17. Anonymous

    What goes around comes around and 2014 is coming (with a vengeance).

    November 21, 2013 05:30 pm at 5:30 pm |
  18. MASON

    Both parties have tried this so its not exclusive to either of them, but to me Filibustering is just childishness. Delaying something is not useful to American people. If something gets passed and your party disagrees with it then work hard to get the trust of your voters and get people into office so you are the majority, simple.

    November 21, 2013 05:30 pm at 5:30 pm |
  19. DPK

    The Congress and President need to pass a balanced budget.
    Do the job you were elected to do!!!!

    November 21, 2013 05:30 pm at 5:30 pm |
  20. aphistoryteacher

    Tyranny by the majority is what we have now come to – John Adams was correct.

    November 21, 2013 05:30 pm at 5:30 pm |
  21. luckjoe

    Any bill the House passes is dead on arrival in Harry Reid and Obama's Senate. Of course that's ok with our Dictator in Chief.

    November 21, 2013 05:31 pm at 5:31 pm |
  22. ditdahdit

    It takes 51% of the vote to elect these 'Honorable Men', why do they think they deserve more of a voice among their own colleagues than the voters have? Egotistical .....

    November 21, 2013 05:31 pm at 5:31 pm |
  23. Rick

    Do as I say, not as I do... The democratic way... I can't wait for next years elections. The democrats will rue the day they implemented this crap. They want one set of rules when they are in power and another when the republicans are. That will change soon enough. stupid hypocrites. I am not surprised. Hypocracy is the democrats norm.

    November 21, 2013 05:31 pm at 5:31 pm |
  24. 68gto

    The man "who would be king". Harry Reid is an evil little man. He doesn't get his way he'll change the rules, much like a spoiled brat. Time after time Republican spending bills are not even brought to the floor because of him. And they say the Republicans won't negotiate???? Evil little man.

    November 21, 2013 05:31 pm at 5:31 pm |
  25. mogran

    Dems will seriously regret Harry's action...what goes around, gonna come around and there'll be tears.

    November 21, 2013 05:32 pm at 5:32 pm |
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