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. skybill40

    Utterly criminal. Of course he's supportive of it... as there will be no stopping whatever he wants. It's called "checks and balances" for a reason, but apparently the scale has been stomped on by the Liberal boot and broken entirely.

    November 21, 2013 05:54 pm at 5:54 pm |
  2. John

    Communism seems to be where this land is heading toward run for your lives...

    November 21, 2013 05:55 pm at 5:55 pm |
  3. ciscokid16

    Our country is dead and buried under this Marxist!

    November 21, 2013 05:55 pm at 5:55 pm |
  4. Robin the Hood

    This is just plain " abuse of power"! these rules were put in place to prevent abuse of power and now abuse of power is what is reversing them..........I'm sorry if everyone thinks that lawyers are dirt bags that why do you vote for them to Govern You?

    November 21, 2013 05:56 pm at 5:56 pm |
  5. joecrew

    This is but another of the"I don't like the rules so we'll change them to my taste" tantrums of Senate democrats. Because they will not allow themselves to be questioned, the Republicans had no option but to try to hold things up.

    November 21, 2013 05:56 pm at 5:56 pm |
  6. jn122736

    Republicans have been doing everything in their power to prevent ANY legislation being passed. Remember, their stated goal from the start was to make Obama a one term president?
    Since that failed they have doubled their efforts to obstruct; even to the point of shutting down the government.

    November 21, 2013 05:56 pm at 5:56 pm |
  7. skybill40

    Utterly heinous and practically criminal. Of course he's in support of it seeing as it's his party that's in control with no way to stop the Liberal agenda. They call it "checks and balances" for a reason, but in this administration it's called "MY WAY or NOTHING."

    November 21, 2013 05:56 pm at 5:56 pm |
  8. Dan

    Small reductions in the ability of the minority to constrain the power of the majority will inevitably lead to abuse of power. Republicans wanted to do the same thing under President Bush somehow they were able to contain themselves. Mark my words, democrats will be screaming about minority rights when they lose the senate. This is short term gain will be a long term loss for the freedom of the country. Most of the people loving this have bought into the propaganda of their side they support.

    November 21, 2013 05:57 pm at 5:57 pm |
  9. Ash

    We are changing the rules because today's politicians cannot work together like the great leaders before them. Politicians are more concerned about stabbing each other in the back and stuffing their pokers than they are with the good of this country. If congress were to play a game of baseball every other batter would be hit by a pitch.

    November 21, 2013 05:57 pm at 5:57 pm |
  10. JFCanton

    It depends what they do with it. If this is abused (stacking courts, for example), you can kiss respect for government goodbye.

    Politicians in the US are elected by small majorities but tend to behave like they have vast mandates.

    November 21, 2013 05:58 pm at 5:58 pm |
  11. Jolat

    Would obama agree with this if republicans were the ones who did? Absolutely not! I'm not saying it's right or wrong, just stating the fact that Obama is the most partisan left wing extremist in our government whether dems admit it or not.

    November 21, 2013 05:58 pm at 5:58 pm |
  12. Shawn

    I am for this as well. As long as once the Republicans get back into office, you will not cry about this "option". But we know this is typical liberal thinking.....Its only good for us, but not for you.....

    November 21, 2013 05:58 pm at 5:58 pm |
  13. Name

    The only thing that is going to end is the relevance of the Republican Party.

    November 21, 2013 05:58 pm at 5:58 pm |
  14. BlogMan

    The Democrats took it upon themselves to "fix what was broken" because it was their decisions and views that determined what was broken – not the American people. I don't believe the filibuster was broken at all – it was working as designed. What is broken is their desire to rule their way or no way – behind closed doors, if necessary, so nobody can argue with them to provide workable solutions. It's much better to let them have their way and WE pay the consequences.

    November 21, 2013 05:58 pm at 5:58 pm |
  15. greyhackles

    If the minority party can bring the entire Senate body to a standing stop and keep it there for years – such as the current minority party has clearly done – exactly what power does the majority party wield?

    November 21, 2013 05:58 pm at 5:58 pm |
  16. Rob

    I have lost any respect remaining for the Politicians in DC. They change the rules when they don't get their way, and it happens on both sides of the isle. Washington DC is morally and ethically bankrupt and falling deeper into the hole.

    November 21, 2013 05:59 pm at 5:59 pm |
  17. jms58

    I just hope the Dems do the same to them if Gop ever gets ths majority again.

    November 21, 2013 06:00 pm at 6:00 pm |
  18. JSmith

    "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." Obama

    Oh, but now it is ok when your in power?

    November 21, 2013 06:01 pm at 6:01 pm |
  19. arozonapatriot

    when political parties in power change the rules beware of a political cooh on the horizon

    November 21, 2013 06:01 pm at 6:01 pm |
  20. teacher

    When a party is trying to work for the good of the American people and are continually backed against a wall by a brainless opposite party, they had no other option. I am a Republican, but I hang my head in shame for what my part;y has become. They are bigoted racists who can't stand the fact that a black man is in the white house and then have the unmitigated gall to blame the president for the stalemates in Congress. I blame Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and all those right wing idiots who claim to be journalists. They should be arrested for treason.

    November 21, 2013 06:02 pm at 6:02 pm |
  21. omgamike

    I can't believe it - 94 pages of comments, wow. All I will say is that the change was long overdue. Something had to be done to allow the Senate to function again, after almost five years of non-stop obstructionism. The DC Circuit is by far the most important circuit in the country. To have this many seats empty simply because the Republicans don't want anyone that Obama appoints, is simply crazy. All three of the names proposed, those people were all extremely well qualified and non-controversial.

    November 21, 2013 06:02 pm at 6:02 pm |
  22. Iamnotfooled

    Enough is enough. Full speed ahead Democrats. Get the work done now.

    November 21, 2013 06:02 pm at 6:02 pm |
  23. hoapres

    One can make a case for filibuster reform but not this way. Obama is trying to deflect critiscism on his FAILED Obamacare.

    November 21, 2013 06:02 pm at 6:02 pm |
  24. karma

    Finally, the Dems start to show some cojones!

    November 21, 2013 06:02 pm at 6:02 pm |
  25. Leslie

    This is the change in tone in Washington D.C. that Obama promised.

    November 21, 2013 06:05 pm at 6:05 pm |
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