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Will 'Nuclear Option' Help or Hurt?

Aired November 21, 2013 - 18:28   ET



ANNOUNCER: Tonight on CROSSFIRE, Senate Democrats take drastic action to help President Obama get his way.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We've seen an unprecedented pattern of obstruction in Congress.

ANNOUNCER: Is what they're calling "the nuclear option" good for either party or the country?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you like the rules of the Senate, you can keep them.

ANNOUNCER: On the left, Stephanie Cutter. On the right, Newt Gingrich. In the CROSSFIRE, Senator Bernie Sanders, who voted for today's rules change, and Senator John Hoeven, who voted against it. Going nuclear: will it help the country or hurt? Tonight on CROSSFIRE.


NEWT GINGRICH, CO-HOST: Welcome to CROSSFIRE. I'm Newt Gingrich on the right.

STEPHANIE CUTTER, CO-HOST: And I'm Stephanie Cutter on the left.

In the CROSSFIRE tonight, two senators who voted on opposite sides for today's rules change. Before we bring in our guests, let's go to CNN's Dana Bash.

Dana, can you put the so-called nuclear option in plain English for us? This is kind of complicated.

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is. And I think the best way to describe it is, in practical terms, what it means is that, unless one of President Obama's nominees is truly controversial, he or she almost surely will get confirmed, as long as Democrats are in control of the Senate.

And the reason is because what Democrats did is they changed the rules so that instead of a 60-vote threshold for nominees to get through to overcome a filibuster. It is now a 51-vote threshold, a simple majority.

Now, the reason it's called the nuclear option is because the shoe is not always on this foot. Democrats, as you well know, Stephanie, are often in the minority, not just the majority. And so this tthishis could come back to haunt them when Republicans are in charge of the Senate and at the White House.

CUTTER; Thanks. Thanks, Dana.

Let's take a minute to turn back the clock. In 2005, I ran the campaign against the nuclear option when I worked for Senator Reid. Back then, Republicans were the ones threatening to go nuclear, so they could get President Bush's nominees through.

In the end, Democrats accepted a deal that put some of today's most conservative judges on the bench, and Republicans agreed not to pull the nuclear trigger. But today Republicans won't make a deal. Throughout U.S. history, senators used the filibuster as a last resort, used only in extraordinary circumstances. Today Republicans view it as a first resort, leaving Harry Reid no choice. Listening to him explaining his decision.


SEN. HARRY REID (R-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: This is not just about Republicans versus Democrats. This is about doing what is right for this institution to evolve and remain responsive to the needs our country has, and we have not been doing that.


CUTTER: Newt, I -- I am sad and conflicted about what happened today. I'm a believer in the United States Senate. I believe it's a deliberative body, but I also believe that it has to work for the American people. And I think the actions that the senators took today, that Senator Reid took today was on behalf of the American people to make the Senate function. It's not functioning.

GINGRICH: Well, I think it's interesting that the Senate, which after all, has passed a number of important things this year, wasn't functioning for the president on his terms, and this was one more step to give President Obama even more power and even more control.

And it's interesting to me that every Democrat who's up for reelection next year except one voted to give President Obama more power, and I suspect that will come back to haunt them. But we'll debate that in the next few minutes.

CUTTER: We will.

GINGRICH: In the CROSSFIRE tonight, Independent Senator Bernie Sanders, and Republican Senator John Hoeven.

Senator Sanders, you served in the House. And I think what struck me, I think this is a very historic vote. I don't think this is just a tactic. And if you watch the president's press conference today, the entire opening of the press conference is a litany of legislative problems. He doesn't get to the appointments until after he goes through layer after layer of legislative problems, which signals to me he intends to unwind the entire filibuster by the time this is done.

Doesn't it bother you some that the Senate as an institution has so suddenly changed towards a House-like institution and that one of the great defenders of slowing things down just disappeared?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I), VERMONT: It does. But I think the problem began a lot before today. The problem began the day after Obama was elected, where the Republicans very clearly made an unprecedented decision that they will do everything they did in an unprecedented way to make sure that he accomplishes as little as he can.

Reid made the point today that, in terms of presidential nominations to the judiciary and to the administration, 168 times since this country was founded, half of those filibusters, that opposition took place since Obama was in office.

Newt, when Lyndon Johnson was the majority leader, he had to deal with one filibuster. Harry Reid has had to deal with over 400.

In your openings remarks you said that the Senate has accomplished good things this year. That's just not accurate. We've done virtually nothing. This country faces enormous crises. Our Republican friends have made the United States Senate dysfunctional. And on behalf of the American people, we've got to get moving.

GINGRICH: Listen, the first appeals court justice ever filibustered was under George Bush. The fact is they got to a nuclear option once before, which I thought was very dangerous, under Bush, not Obama.

So I mean, I understand why both sides are being partisan, but the Senate is now permanently changed.

SANDERS: Here's one. If your point is to have the Democrats done some of the stuff, the answer is absolutely. But have the Republicans taken it to an entirely new level? That is simply the reality.

CUTTER: Senator Hoeven, on Senator Sanders' points, you're moderately new to the Senate. You were elected in 2010.


CUTTER: And over the last five years since President Obama was elected, the number of filibusters have risen dramatically. Let's take a look on the screen. Eighty-two of the 168 blocked or filibustered presidential nominees have occurred under President Obama under this Republican minority.

Is that why you came to the United States Senate? You're not even making substantive arguments against these people; you're just blocking.

HOEVEN: Yes, but the reality is the change that the Democrats made. And really, this is really Obama care, too. They passed Obama care with only Democrat votes. We've seen how that's worked out. So now, to take the focus off Obama care, we have in essence, Obama care 2, where they change the rules. They break the rules to change the rules with only Democrat votes.

This is not going to work. We need bipartisanship. And if you look at presidential nominations, President Bush had more of his nominations held up. We've confirmed more of President Obama's nominations...

CUTTER: That's actually not true, according to the numbers.

HOEVEN: ... than -- than in the case for President Bush.

CUTTER: But do you think that blocking nominations is bipartisan?

HOEVEN: So again, I -- judicial -- just let me -- judicial nominations, out of 215, 215 judicial nominations, we've turned down two? Where's the "advise and consent" if you have to go 100 percent or that's not good enough?

CUTTER: Actually, President Bush at this point had 91 percent of his nominees. We're in the low 70s.

HOEVEN: If you look at all nominees, it's over 99 percent. Go back and check.

CUTTER: Not judicial nominees ...

HOEVEN: Of course. But if you want to take all nominees...

CUTTER: ... which is actually very important...

HOEVEN: ... we've confirmed over 99 percent. Where is the "advise and consent" if you can't turn down somebody sometime?

CUTTER: You're talking about -- you're talking about bipartisanship. You're talking about bipartisanship. Is it an act of bipartisanship to block for just the sake of blocking?

HOEVEN: Over 99 percent confirmed, and you're saying we're blocking?

CUTTER: Half of filibusters?

HOEVEN: The only unilateral partisan action here was to change the rules. A hundred percent Democrat votes just like pushing through Obama care.

SANDERS: Let me just jump in, John, and -- John and I are friends. We get along.

HOEVEN: We are.

SANDERS: John, Chuck Grassley, who is the ranking member of the judiciary committee, said that he thinks we should not appoint these three new nominees, because the court is not busy enough. He thinks that Obama is, quote/unquote, "packing the court." Does this pass the laugh test?

Everybody knows -- and he's also -- Let me finish. He is upset that Barack Obama is actually appointing people who are sympathetic to what Obama believes. Clearly, Obama is the first president in history. Bush never appointed anybody's -- it is such an absurd argument that, clearly what, Chuck Grassley and the Republicans are saying, look, there are three nominees who are not going to be conservatives. We don't want them. We're going to stop them.

HOEVEN: Senator, let me respond to that. When the Republicans -- or the Democrats did the same thing when President Bush tried to put people on the D.C. circuit court. So the Democrats did the exact same thing when the position was reversed.

Second, there isn't enough work for the current members of that court, let alone continuing to add.

Third, Senator Grassley has a bill to remedy it. Why don't you work with us on a bipartisan basis to address the underlying problem?

SANDERS: John, let's not be -- I mean, I really think that does not pass the laugh test.

HOEVEN: Those are facts.

SANDERS: Just coincidentally -- just coincidentally, these are Obama's nominees, and you've decided that the court is not busy enough. Just coincidentally.


GINGRICH: Let me -- let me further push the laugh test for a second.


GINGRICH: I just can't resist, because I -- as you know, I like having you here, and I think you're always very candid and come at angles I don't think of normally.

Senator Cornyn said today something that I think sort of fits. I mean, you're talking here about a fight over three D.C. Court of Appeals judges. Maybe sooner or later you might have to get to a nuclear option.

Senator Cornyn said he actually thought, faced with two weeks of going home to talk about the total collapse of the Obama care system, that in fact, this was kind of a good thing to turn and have a new argument. What was it that made it necessary, literally the day they're going home for the Thanksgiving break, to bring it up today?

SANDERS: I think this has been talked about. I think Majority Leader Reid has been talking about this for -- for quite a while, and he wanted to get it done today.

But let me pick up on another point, Newt, which you mentioned. You said is this laying the groundwork for something even more, going to the legislative issue. So let me be very frank with you. That's exactly what I believe. I believe that, given the fact that unemployment today in this country is much, much too high, that we need to raise the minimum wage, that we need to create millions of jobs. What we have seen in the last three or four years, is in the Senate, we have gotten over 50 votes for a decent jobs bill, for some environmental bills, for bills that protect women against job discrimination, to protect the high cost of college education and make sure that college loans are affordable. We've gotten over 50 votes, but we can't pass anything.

HOEVEN: You mean like student loans, which was bipartisan? You mean like the farm bill, which was bipartisan?

SANDERS: No, the student loan -- no, no, no.

HOEVEN: You mean the resource development...

SANDERS: No, the ones that were passed.

HOEVEN: ... like immigration, which was bipartisan.

SANDERS: The ones that were passed. Wait a second. The student loans that were -- bill that was passed was a much worse bill -- worse bill than the one that could not get through.

HOEVEN: But isn't that the point? From a partisan standpoint, but from a bipartisan standpoint, it passed with a very large support.

SANDERS: The question is why we couldn't get any Republican votes to pass something that was significant and really would have helped students.

GINGRICH: We're going to come back to that. But I think I've found three of the best people to make my case to Senator Sanders who pass the laugh test, who oppose nuclear option. Next we'll hear from Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Harry Reid, when we come back.


GINGRICH: Welcome back. In the CROSSFIRE tonight, senators Bernie Sanders and John Hoeven.

It's been an incredible day on Capitol Hill, and the U.S. Senate as it once was may have died forever.

The Founding Fathers realized that your opinion changes when your relative power changes. Filibusters helped make the U.S. Senate what they called the saucer that cooled the hot coffee coming from the House. And that was by design.

As of today, that's changed forever, despite earlier warnings from three prominent Democrats I'm sure you're going to recognize.


OBAMA: If they choose to change the rules and put an end to Democratic debate, then the fighting and the bitterness and the gridlock will only get worse.

REID: The filibuster is far from a procedural gimmick. It's part of the fabric of this institution we call the Senate.

HILLARY CLINTON, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: So this president has come to the majority here in the Senate and basically said, "Change the rules. Do it the way I want it done."


GINGRICH: You know, Senator Sanders, when I listened to the president today expand -- and you were honest a few minutes ago and said probably you would expand the elimination of the filibuster.


GINGRICH: No, but I think that's going to happen.

What I was reminded of was, in moments of passion, we sometimes knock down institutions that were designed deliberately. I thought back to "A Man for All Seasons" and we've got a brief clip that I just think is interesting as a warning about what started today.


WILLIAM ROPER: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

SIR THOMAS MORE: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

WILLIAM ROPER: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!

SIR THOMAS MORE: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?


GINGRICH: And I guess what I would ask is this -- because many times in my career, including when I was speaker, we were told, "Oh, you can't do X, you can't do Y, you'll never get to the Senate, don't even start down that road."

If the Republicans win in '14 and come back and win everything in '16, and in January of '17 say, you know, here's all this stuff, we're going to get rid of all of it in 90 days -- as we did with the contract, go through all of it in 90 days.

When we did it in '95, we then collided with the Senate and the Senate rules. Doesn't it worry you we are in the process of taking down one of the great defenses against popular will?

SANDERS: It does, but again the point I would make is the key action was not taken today by the Democrats. The key action today was taken by the Republicans, who made a decision that in an unprecedented way they would obstruct virtually every initiative that Obama and the Democrat brought forth.

I know Harry Reid. Harry Reid is an institution guy. He loves the Senate. He's been there for a long time. He's not happy about doing this.

He is doing it, because I've seen a part of -- you know, he's so frustrated. Nothing is happening. The truth of the matter is our country is hurting today. People are outraged that even on a simple thing -- I don't know that John has particular options to these three nominations to this court. That's just one small part of the problem.

Virtually, every initiative that comes up -- look, a few weeks ago, we were dealing with our Republican friends in the House who shut it down, because they had the bright idea that they wanted to end the funding of Obamacare. They went too far. You're seeing the same practice taking place in the Senate.

What Reid has done is respond to that, trying to bring back a level of functionality in the Senate.

HOEVEN: Senator, if you would respond to this, we're working on the defense authorization bill right now.


HOEVEN: That has always been an opened-amendment process, but instead, Leader Reid has a closed process. We can't even offer an amendment.

How in any way, shape or form, are you going to get a bipartisan bill if you won't let the minority offer and vote on an amendment?

SANDERS: John, Jim Inhofe -- correct me if I'm wrong. Jim Inhofe, who is Republican --


SANDERS: One of the most conservative guys in the Senate.

HOEVEN: Tried to get some amendments forward (ph).

SANDERS: And Jim said, as I understand it, we've got 25 amendments. The Republicans were given 25 amendments, the Democrats were given 25 amendments, Inhofe said, that's good. And yet, we couldn't get Republican support to go forward with 25 amendments.

HOEVEN: He came and said he'll try to get 25. So far, we've gotten, what, none? One vote. One vote.

SANDERS: No, no, no. My understanding is there has been an agreement, 25-plus -- give you another issue, energy efficiency bills.

(CROSSTALK) CUTTER: Let's get --

HOEVEN: But here's the bigger issue. Anything that passes the Senate still has to go to the House, doesn't it?


HOEVEN: How are you going to get a bill through the House if you don't get a bipartisan vote to do in the Senate? You've got to work with the Republican Party --


CUTTER: Let's bring it back to the issue we're talking about today.

Senator Hoeven, if there was an effort to find a compromise over the judicial nominees and the administration's nominees --

HOEVEN: Right.

CUTTER: -- like it was done in 2005, when Democrats accepted what we would consider some pretty conservative nominees, proven to be very conservative on the bench, we accepted them in order to avert the nuclear option, would you be part of that compromise?

HOEVEN: Absolutely. Look, we worked, just a few months ago, we all went into the old Senate chambers. We have a long dialogue. We came one some changes. We approved a number of nominees, but look, any compromise --

CUTTER: Would you accept the D.C. circuit nominees that are before the Senate now?

HOEVEN: Again, you said work out some kind of compromise. I'm happy to do that. But it can that be the kind of thing where this last arrangement, we went through, we approved a number of nominees. And now, they're coming back and saying, "Look, unless you approve every single nominee we put in front of you, we're going to change the rules."

CUTTER: I don't think -- I don't think that's what the question is. How about this then? Let's say what Newt is predicting, that the Senate flips in 2014, which I don't think will happen.


HOEVEN: I think it might.

CUTTER: But let's say that it does. You'll be in the majority. You've never been in the majority before.

HOEVEN: Right.

CUTTER: Would you work, being in the majority to change the rule back? HOEVEN: I think one of the things you've seen from Republicans today is we're not saying what we do because what we do needs to be in the best interests of the American people.


HOEVEN: No, at this point, we're trying to determine what should be done. Here -- just like when they push Obamacare through with 100 percent Democrat votes and now, they're wondering what the public won't support it when there was no bipartisanship. No coming together and trying to figure out something that could work. They do the same thing now with the Senate rules.

What we're saying is, if we get the chance to be in charge, we need to think this through and figure out what does work, and that does mean understanding --


CUTTER: So, you're not even -- you're not even -- you voted against it today. You voted against the nuclear option today.


CUTTER: But you're not even sure you would continue that vote if you get into the majority. You're not even sure you would restore the rules.

HOEVEN: You asked what we could do when we get control.

CUTTER: Right. Would --


HOEVEN: I'm saying we're going to think through that in a very measured way and come up with something that works for the American people and get some good results. Not a partisan unilateral action.

SANDERS: Stephanie, we don't know. Maybe the Republican will gain control of the Senate. Maybe they won't. You and I hope that they won't.



SANDERS: But what we have learned -- what we have learned is that in those states, recently where Republicans have taken control, like Wisconsin and other states, they have used the rules in the most extreme ways imaginable, going out of the way to make it hard for people to vote even. Change the rules. Doing gerrymandering -- gerrymandering has gone on since --

HOEVEN: Senator, this is a very interesting argument saying, OK, somebody else in your opinion did it wrong, so it's OK -- SANDERS: I can't predict. No, John, I didn't say that. All I'm saying is if you look at what you guys may say, we're not going to do what they did in those states. Maybe you will. I'm not saying you won't.

But I am saying that we are looking out there right now when Republicans have had control. Man, have they used their power.

CUTTER: We're going to break. We're going to come back to this. So, stay here.

Next, we have the final question for both of our guests. We also want at home to weigh in on today's "Fireback" question. Do you think that dysfunction in Washington is curable? Tweet yes or no using the #crossfire. We'll have the results after the break.


CUTTER: We're back with Senators Bernie Sanders and John Hoeven.

Now, it's time for a final question to each of you.

You know, I was proud to work for a great icon of the Senate, Ted Kennedy who was known for his bipartisan deal making. But there are lots of icons on both sides of the aisle -- Howard Baker, Bob Dole, Bob Byrd.

Tell me what you think they would be thinking today if they were here in the Senate dealing with the nuclear option? Have those days ended? Is this curable?

HOEVEN: You know, Stephanie, I think Robert Byrd who was in the Senate for -- you know, one of the longest serving senators in the history of the Senate, I think he is turning over in his grave. I mean, he was somebody who understood to break the rules means you have no rules.

Another Democrat who I didn't get to work with but I have immense respect for, Mike Mansfield. He -- I've heard story after story about how when senators came in, Republican or Democrat, he made sure they had their say, they had their ability to offer an amendment, brought them into the mix and created a bipartisan atmosphere.

GINGRICH: Bernie, let me ask you -- we were told the last month that no matter how bad the Web site got, the president couldn't fire Secretary Sebelius because he'd never get a nominee through Senate. Now, doesn't today clear the way for the president to fire Secretary Sebelius?

SANDERS: I'd rather answer Stephanie's question.



SANDERS: It was a better question. I like Sebelius. You know, clearly, the rollout has been terrible.

To get to Stephanie's question, I think it is a sad day. But it's not just a sad day. It's been a sad year.

When a country faces so many problems and we are doing virtually nothing to address those problems, when we see filibuster after filibuster. We are dealing with -- as scientists tell us, and, John, maybe you agree with me, maybe you don't -- that global warming is one great planetary crisis.

GINGRICH: We're going to have you come back.

SANDERS: All right.

GINGRICH: We have the tyranny of the clock.

So, I want to thank, Senator Bernie Sanders and John Hoeven.

Go to Facebook or Twitter to weigh in on our "Fireback" question. Do you think dysfunction in Washington is curable? Right now, 58 percent of you say yes, 42 percent say no.

CUTTER: The debate continues online at, as well as Facebook and Twitter.

From the left, I'm Stephanie Cutter.

GINGRICH: From the right, I'm Newt Gingrich.

Join us tomorrow for another edition of CROSSFIRE.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.