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Senate Invokes "Nuclear Option," Ending Filibuster of Certain Nominees; Senate Passes Nuclear Option; Troops in Afghanistan

Aired November 21, 2013 - 12:30   ET


HALA GORANI, CNN CO-ANCHOR: All right, there you had Senator John McCain, Senator John McCain who, several times in the past, had averted this nuclear option, negotiating there with the Senate majority leader, Reid. In this case it looks as though a deal didn't happen.

Dana Bash is, of course, still covering this on Capitol Hill. We'll get to Jeffrey Toobin in a moment.

Let's listen to John McCain here for a moment.


SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: For the last two weeks I've reached out to them. I spent an hour in Harry Reid's office. I've reached. I've reached until my arm aches, OK?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And they are saying?

MCCAIN: They're governed by these hard-over, newer members of the Democratic senators who have never been in a minority who are primarily driving this issue, and they succeeded. And they will pay a very, very heavy price for it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is this going to be an election year issue, do you think?

MCCAIN: No. I don't think that Americans understand that very well. But what it will do, it will affect our ability to do business here in the Senate. And we will not let it distract from the failure of Obamacare.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But, Senator, some people say that, number one --


MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN CO-ANCHOR: All right, Senator John McCain there.

Dana Bash standing by, a very heavy price will be paid. Outline for us what that price might be.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, before I tell you that, I should tell you that the "nuclear option" was just detonated on the Senate floor. As we were playing that tape from Senator McCain, they finalized the vote. And it's a little bit backwards, counterintuitive, because the vote was 48-to-52, but what that effectively did was say that the ruling of the chair, which was that anything -- that this particular nomination needed 60 votes to overcome the filibuster, that that was wrong.

So it overcame that ruling and what that does is set precedent for future nominations, for future judicial nominations, executive branch nominations. So what that particular ruling and particular vote just did was change the rules of the Senate.

Again, what we're talking about here, what that nuclear option is, is to prevent the minority, effectively, from waging a filibuster that Democrats, in this case, or the majority can't overcome. The threshold was 60 votes, and it is, at least in the makeup of the current Senate, was impossible for Democrats to overcome that on partisan votes. Now it's down to 51 votes, a simple majority.

And so we're going to see what happens from here. And we're going to see how quickly the Senate majority leader is going to take up some of the nominations that they've been complaining Republicans have been blocking, namely some of the judicial nominations to the D.C. Circuit Court which is, as we've been talking about, a very important, critical court in this country.

HOLMES: OK. So then, that's been done. The finger's been lifted off the trigger now. It's detonated, as you say. What will that heavy price that Senator McCain refers to be?

BASH: You know, we're going to see. Look, the Senate is arranged in a pretty clever way, and even though the power of the filibuster, the power of the minority in what was, until a few minutes ago, the filibuster, which is the 60-vote threshold, was a big one, but there are other tricks that senators in the minority have up their sleeve.

And their -- the process, I think the best way a senator, any single senator, can legislate and can make a political impact is by learning those rules, and ways around the rules. And there are lots of ways for members of the Senate body to kind of throw things up in the air. I think that's one of the answers.

The other answer is just in terms of getting along. The reason why we wanted to talk to Senator McCain and that particular exchange that he had with reporter is so interesting is because he was the one, about a month ago, maybe a little bit more, who got a deal going with the Democratic leader to avoid exactly what we just saw. He was able to get some of the president's nominees through to avoid this nuclear option.

He said he was trying to reach out to Democrats, essentially making the argument that his fellow Republicans are making, which is that Democrats want to do this for political reasons, to make a point, to change the subject perhaps from Obamacare.

So that's the state that we are in right now. If you have somebody like John McCain who certainly has been up and down with regard to partisanship, but in recent months has been maybe the Republican who's wanted to reach out the most to Democrats, if he's saying things are going to change, that should tell you something.

GORANI: All right, Dana Bash, stand by.

Just to remind our viewers of breaking news here, never before used, the so-called "nuclear option" on Capitol Hill in the Senate changing the rules for approving judicial nominees, a move that would strip the minority party, in this case the Republican Party, of the ability to filibuster, to block some of the executive appointments in the Senate.

Jeffrey Toobin, our senior legal analyst there, how important, how significant, how historic is this, Jeffrey?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST (via telephone): This may sound like just a bunch of bureaucratic nonsense, but this is immensely important. This may be as significant to Barack Obama's legacy as president as Obamacare, almost, because this will mean his federal judges, the ones he appointed, will be able to be confirmed, at least for the following year,

And they will serve for decades, including three whose nominations are pending to the D.C. Circuit, which is the second-most important court in the country. So this is an enormously important development that really will change the way the Senate works.

It will either, depending on your view, make this Senate more efficient and fair, or turn it into a political circus, like the House of Representatives. Take your choice.

GORANI: Yeah. And -- but this, because here you have a Democratic majority, once Republicans are in charge of the Senate, the same rules will apply to them, right?

TOOBIN (via telephone): Absolutely. Absolutely. And that is a point that's been made repeatedly in the debate, Republicans saying to Democrats, be careful what you wish for, because when we have a Republican president and a Republican Senate, we will jam through nominations just the way you are jamming through.

And the Democrats are essentially saying, 'we'll take that risk'. We think it's important that the standard for the Senate working is majority, not 60 votes, the way it has become to be in the last few years, and we will take the chance and we will live with the consequences.

The Senate, in most circumstances, is supposed to be a vote that operates by majority rule, not by three-fifths, and that's the way it's going to be on nominations, henceforth.

HOLMES: And, Jeffrey, you know, I think as we've said earlier, there's a hundred or so judicial vacancies. There's other appointments, too, that have been held at bay, the Democrats would say, for political reasons. Is this not a good thing that these positions get filled? TOOBIN (via telephone): Well, certainly, John Roberts, the chief justice, who is no liberal and no friend of Democrats, has said there are judicial emergencies out there. We need judges confirmed. Republicans point out that President Obama has not even sent nominees to quite a few of these vacancies, so it's not all on the Senate.

But it is true, that this will presumably make filling vacancies a lot easier and a lot faster, and it should be a dramatic change.

HOLMES: Jeffrey Toobin, CNN's senior analyst, also Dana Bash on the Hill, thanks to you both.

We'll keep watching this.

GORANI: A new plan would keep some American troops in Afghanistan until 2024 or even longer. How will it go over with that country's tribal leaders? Even here in the U.S.? Talking about that.


HOLMES: Continuing to follow breaking news out of Washington, the "nuclear option," as it's being called, to break the opportunity to filibuster in the Senate, to change the number of votes required to a simple majority rather than 60, well, the button's been pushed on that "nuclear option."

It's going to free up the ability of the administration to fulfill its appointments to vacancies, but it's angered Republicans.

GORANI: Right. And the Arizona senator, John McCain, who several times in the past had managed to negotiate agreements to avoid this "nuclear option," in this case, it did not work.

He spoke just moments ago. Let's listen to what he had to say.


MCCAIN: I know it puts a chill on the entire United States Senate. It puts a chill on things like the disabilities treaty which we had a hearing on this morning. It puts a chill on everything that requires bipartisan.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So you're not reaching out to Democrats that you worked with --

MCCAIN: I reached out to them for the last two weeks I've reached out them.


MCCAIN: I spent an hour in Harry Reid's office. Come on, I've reached out - I've reached until my arm aches, OK?


GORANI: Well, is this the end of what was left of bipartisanship in the Senate on Capitol Hill? Dana Bash has been covering this, of course, and the breaking news, this nuclear option invoked on the floor of the Senate.

Dana, what does this mean?

BASH: We're going to see. And we'll see how it goes. In the short term, it means that the president is going to get his judges, at least Patricia Millett, who's the person who they used sort of to get this process going. She is a nominee for the D.C. Circuit, which, as we've been talking about, is the -- maybe the second highest court in the land, very, very important, the feeder court for the Supreme Court.

But also the one that Republicans were trying to keep the vacancies open on because for lots of reasons but primarily because it's evenly split right now and they didn't want to tip the balance towards the Democrats. And they're arguing that the workload isn't necessary. But in the short term, that's what it means. It means that the president is going to get at least one of his judges, probably a few more, in the near future.

Long term, to the point that John McCain was making about the fact that it's going to put a chilling effect on everything around here, it certainly could. There's no question about it. It was already a very partisan place but there were areas of bipartisanship, treaties, he mentioned, a lot - you know, very much so on most issues of national security. You see Democrats and Republicans coming together. We'll see if that changes.

What is interesting, in going back and looking at the history of filibusters and how many were used, the rule - the last time a rule was changed on the threshold for a filibuster, I get it, just was made lower from 60 to 51, it was 1975. And before that, it was 67. It was about that time that people started using filibusters more. And we were talking here.

I mean, you never know. We didn't cover the Senate back then, but perhaps it was because the threshold was so high to overcome a filibuster, perhaps people on both sides of the aisle worked a lot harder to get bipartisan legislation, which doesn't happen a lot around here. And, of course, at this point, we're not talking about legislation, we're talking about nominees, which is a different thing. But in terms of the tone and the atmospherics here in the Senate, it could be part of the reason why.

Now, I should also make the point, not to get too far into the weeds on what is also a very - already a process story, that just one of the reasons why Republicans, who are now in the minority, argue that they waged so many filibusters is because Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, is able to do some parliamentary maneuvers in order to make it hard for them to offer basic amendments. So that is -- so, as I said, the blame certainly goes on both sides. There's a lot of blame to go around, not just from the past, because the shoe is always on the other foot, but even in terms of how things work right now.

HOLMES: All right, Dana, thanks so much. Dana Bash on Capitol Hill, following things for us. We're going to take a short break here and "AROUND THE WORLD", though. We will be right back with more.


HOLMES: Welcome back.

Afghan tribal leaders are debating a plan to keep some U.S. troops in their country for another decade after combat ends next year, perhaps even longer than that. President Obama offering something to help seal the deal. In a letter to the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, he promises that U.S. forces will, quote, "continue to make every effort to respect the sanctity and dignity of Afghans in their homes and in their daily lives, just as we do for our own citizens."

What's missing in that line? Well, an apology for the deaths of Afghan civilians. That's something that Hamid Karzai would have liked. He's not getting it. Parts of the plan could be a hard sell for the Afghan people in general. Here's CNN foreign affairs reporter Elise Labott.


ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS REPORTER: The deal could leave thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan for years to come.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: There is no combat role for the United States forces and the bilateral security agreement is an effort to try to clarify for Afghans and for United States military forces exactly what the rules are with respect to that ongoing relationship.

LABOTT: But until this council of tribal leaders, called a Loya Jirga, approves it, it's far from a done deal. President Karzai did hail the agreement while at the same time taking a jab at the U.S.

PRES. HAMID KARZAI, AFGHANISTAN (through translator): My trust with America is not good. I don't trust them, and they don't trust me.

LABOTT: Leaving the question of whether the Afghan people will buy in an open one. In a letter to the Afghan people, President Obama promised U.S. troops won't enter Afghan homes without "urgent risk to life and limb of U.S. nationals." Past raids have killed innocent Afghans and fueled anger among the population. And Karzai says, the U.S. should acknowledge these past mistakes.

In the letter, President Obama notes Afghan concerned about their citizens' safety and privacy and pledges to ensure Afghan homes and laws are respected, but offer no apology for civilian deaths. For the U.S., it's a delicate balance between showing remorse and defending U.S. actions in the 12--year-old war, a tightrope walk by one of President Obama's top advisors speaking to CNN.

BEN RHODES, DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: We have, of course, throughout the war, always indicated regret when there are instances of civilian casualties, but I think the Afghan people understand the great sacrifices that Americans have made on behalf of their security.


HOLMES: Elise is with us now to talk more about this. As all things Afghan, it's complicated, even if the Loya Jirga, this meeting of elders, signs off on the deal. President Karzai might not sign it until after the election in April, when he won't be president anymore. When they talk about trust, I don't trust them, they don't trust me. The fact of the matter is, he needs the U.S., he needs U.S. dollars. He's got a military that can't pay for itself without billions of dollars going down the line and other things, too. That's the reality, isn't it?

LABOTT: That's right, Michael. And this is President Karzai's game over the years with the United States that's so frustrated U.S. officials, that he knows that he needs them but he always goes out and says really derogatory comments, kind of throwing everything up in the air. He did promise to sign this agreement once the Loya Jirga approves it.

And now, by waiting until April, this could cast doubt on the agreement because what if his successor doesn't like parts of it? The U.S. said it would need about a year to start withdrawing U.S. troops. Other countries that want to keep troops in Afghanistan are waiting for this agreement to be signed. So it certainly casts a lot of uncertainty on the future of a U.S. and international presence after 2014.

HOLMES: Yes, and just briefly, of course, meanwhile, the Taliban waiting and watching to see what their fate might be down the line.

LABOTT: That's absolutely right. And although there have been some games, one of the reasons that the U.S. wants to keep troops in there is because certainly, although the combat role they say is over, the war against the Taliban, the war against these insurgents is not over. The Afghan forces, while they've made great gains in getting trained up and up to speed, they certainly are far from prime time in terms of leading this effort. And that's why the U.S. really does want to keep some troops in and may not be able to.

HOLMES: And keep paying the bills as well. Elise, thanks so much. Elise Labott there in Washington.

That will do it for "AROUND THE WORLD". Thanks for your company today. I'm Michael Holmes. Hala Gorani has already headed down for her next program. CNN NEWSROOM with Wolf Blitzer starts right after this.