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Wrong Way Plane About to Attempt Takeoff; Senate Passes Filibuster Nuclear Option

Aired November 21, 2013 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, breaking news, Senate Democrats vote to approve the so-called nuclear option. It's a move that would make the partisan divide up on Capitol Hill even worse. Is it the only way, though, to get the Senate working again as Democrats allege?

Also right now, a massive cargo plane is getting ready to take off from an extremely short runway at a Kansas airport where it was never supposed to be in the first place. We're going to show you the challenging feat live this hour.

Also right now, the New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, riding high. He's the brand-new leader of the Republican Governor's Association. That's a job that could set him up perfectly for 2016.

Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting today from Washington.

If you think Congress is bitterly divided now, just hold on. Only a few moments ago, the Senate approved what's called the nuclear option, making it easier to end filibusters. It landed like a bomb up on Capitol Hill. And just ahead of the vote, the majority leader, Harry Reid, expressed frustration over Republicans using filibusters to block President Obama's nominees.


SEN. HARRY REID (D), MAJORITY LEADER: These nominees deserve at least an up or down vote, yes or no. But Republican filibusters deny them a fair vote, any vote, and deny the president his team. Gridlock has consequences and they're terrible. It's not only bad for President Obama, bad for this body, the United States Senate, it's bad for our country.


BLITZER: The minority leader, Mitch McConnell, says Democrats are creating a crisis to distract attention from Obamacare.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MINORITY LEADER: Millions of Americans are hurting because of a law Washington Democrats forced upon them. And what do they do about it? They cook up some fake fight over judges. A fake fight over judges that aren't even needed.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: Our Chief Congressional Correspondent Dana Bash is up on Capitol Hill. She's following these dramatic, dare I say historic, developments. Dana, these have huge, huge ramifications. Explain what is going on right now in Congress.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, what's going on right now, Wolf, as we speak actually, on the Senate floor is the fruits, if you will, of what the Democrats tried to do. And obviously, Republicans see it a whole different way what Democrats successfully did which is we're seeing a vote to stop a Republican filibuster on an Obama judicial nominee that will only require 51 votes to pass, whereas an hour ago, it required 60 votes to pass. So, we're seeing the first procedural --

BLITZER: Republican leader speaking to reporters right now. I want to listen in.

MCCONNELL (live): -- for some time now, at the beginning of each of the last two Congresses, we've had a discussion about rules changes. Senator Alexander was right in the middle of those and will give you an update on what happened back in January, just to refresh your memory. But after that, the majority leader said we had set the rules for this Congress. Well, obviously, that was a commitment not kept. We thought he said, if you'd like the Senate rule you can keep them, but, in fact, we ended up having another discussion in July with another threat of the so-called nuclear option, and then you've seen what they've done today. Talk about a manufactured crisis. We've confirmed 215 judges and defeated two.

And the problem with regard to the D.C. circuit entirely related to the size of the court and the size of the docket, we took exactly the same views Senate Democrats took during the Bush administration that there was no rationale for extending, for increasing the membership of the D.C. circuit. Exactly the same rational. A letter signed by Schumer, Kennedy, and others saying there's no need for additional judge. We have judicial emergencies in other parts of country. So, this was nothing more than a power grab in order to try to advance the Obama administration's regulatory agenda and, you know, they just broke the Senate rules in order to exercise the power grab.

So, I would sum it up by saying it's a sad day in the history of the Senate. After today, advise and consent probably means to them 100 percent consent. Senator Alexander will give you now the statistics on how common a rejection of nominees has been in the past because I think it'll be an eye opener for you -- Lamar.

SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER (R), TENNESSEE: Thanks, Mitch. In my view, this is the most important and most dangerous restructuring of Senate rules since Jefferson wrote them at the beginning of our country. It's really not about the filibuster. It's another raw exercise of political power to permit the majority to do anything it wants whenever it wants to do it. It is Obamacare two in that sense.

As Senator Levin said, repeating Senator Vandenberg's words after World War II, a Senate -- a United States Senate without any -- in which the majority can do anything it wants, any time it wants, is a Senate without rules. It would be like the Red Sox falling behind in Boston and saying to the Cardinals, well, we're the home team, so we'll just add a few innings until we can score some runs. This is a Senate without rules. And it's done --

BLITZER: So, that's Lamar Alexander and Mitch McConnell, the Republican leaders in the U.S. Senate blasting Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader and the Democrats for dramatically changing the rules of the game. Rules that have been in place for a long time. Dana, they just decided to do this. They passed this change. You no longer need 60 votes to block a presidential nominee. You only need a majority, 51. It's been going -- ever since I've been reporting here in Washington, that filibuster has been in place. The 60-vote requirement has been in place. But now for the first time, it has changed and Democrats are making what point in arguing for this dramatic change, Dana?

BASH: It is that they believe it is the president's prerogative to have the nominees that he wants, both in the executive branch and also lifetime appointments for the -- for the bench, judicial appointments. And they argued that that is sort of the way it works, that if a president is nominated by the country -- excuse me, elected by the majority of the country and is in the White House, that is the -- one of the big benefits, the big perks of being in the White House. And certainly, this happened in both Democratic and Republican administrations that they have -- particularly when you're talking about the judicial bench that they've been able to stack the bench with people who fit and form their own ideology.

And so, in fact, if you look on the floor of the Senate right now, already Senate Democrats are pushing through the first procedural vote on a judicial nominee, Patricia Millet, for the D.C. circuit under the new rules. So, it will only need 51 votes to overcome a filibuster hurdle, and then go on to be -- to be approved which even Republicans are telling us, based on the new rules, will likely happen before the end of the day.

BLITZER: In 19 -- in 2008, Harry Reid swore -- he said -- he said that as a leader of the United States Senate, he said he would never turn to what's called the nuclear option, insisting, and I'm quoting him now, "it would be a black chapter in the history of the Senate." So, how does he defend that dramatic change from what he said in 2008 to what he's saying now and doing now?

BASH: Well, we're going to hear from him any minute, actually. He's going to have a press conference and hopefully we'll be able to ask him that question. But until now, asked similar questions, his answer has been that since between 2008 and now, things are different. And he argues that Republicans are a lot more aggressive about holding up the president's nominations, more aggressive about grinding the Senate to a halt.

Now, there are certainly a lot of statistics and numbers that Republicans can and are putting forward, arguing that it's not true, that they are not holding up as many or maybe not any -- not as much of a difference between what they're doing and what Democrats did when George Bush was in the White House, for example. So, that is what he's arguing. But, of course, you have Republicans as you just heard from Mitch McConnell arguing that this is political, that Democrats are trying to make a point that they are trying to change the subject and that this is a fake fight. But you can be sure that if it's a fake fight or not, Republicans are going to try to use it to their advantage, too, politically and go back home and argue to the Republican base and those independent voters that Democrats are not being fair. They're changing the rules of the game in a way that benefits them and hurts the rules and the options of the minority in the Senate.

BLITZER: Yes. I -- Dana, hold on for a moment. Gloria is here, Gloria Borger, our Chief Political Analyst. Gloria, a lot of Democrats over the years -- they're in the majority now, 55 Democrats, 45 Republicans, but you know that can change. The Democrats can be in the minority. They will then want to use that minority power with a filibuster to stop certain decisions by the majority who could be the Republicans. Historically, Democrats and Republicans, they've always feared (INAUDIBLE) a nuclear option. It could come back to haunt them --


BLITZER: -- sooner rather than later.

BORGER: You know, where you stand depends where you sit. And that's the argument that a few Democrats had been making. A few Democrats didn't vote for this because they worry about this. And I think what we're seeing here is the extreme partisanship spill over onto everything. And Harry Reid is effectively saying, look, this was minority rule. This wasn't majority rule. It was minority rule in the Senate so we could not get any of these nominations through.

Is it a long-term decision, you know? I would argue that in the long term, if you look at the Democratic Party, it's going to be in the minority in the Senate someday. They may regret this. But, but they're at such a point of bottleneck and frustration and a point at which they're not able to get what they believe is a fair number of nominations through, that -- you know, that this occurred. They've come to this brink before and they've avoided it. John McCain kind of worked out a deal. But for some reason now, this nuclear option seemed the only thing for Harry Reid to do. And, you know, again, privately, Democrats are saying, this could be short sighted. I mean, but it just gives you a sense of the partisanship.

BLITZER: The poisonous atmosphere here.

BORGER: And the worry here is that this only poisons the well even more.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to continue the breaking news coverage. Dana is going to be with us. Gloria's with us. Jeffrey Toobin is standing by. Much more. Historic moment here in Washington today. The Democratic Majority in the United States Senate has dramatically changed the rules of the game when it comes to how to get confirmations through. Lots at stake. We'll be right back. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: This -- you're looking at a live picture here from Wichita, one of the air -- small airports in Wichita. This is a huge, huge Atlas Air 747 Dream Lifter. It's a modified 747 400-passenger plane. It can haul more cargo than any other plane in the world. It made a mistake. Pilots landed at the wrong airport overnight. A 6,000-foot runway as opposed to 9,000 that's really needed for a plane like this to take off, yet they've decided that the plane is going to try to take off momentarily, even though the runway is considered too short. The weather is supposedly good for that. We'll watch it. We'll show it to you. Hopefully everything will be smooth. The plane will take off and head over to a different airport, different airfield in the Wichita area where it will be better prepared to deal with this enormous cargo that's on board. All right, stand by for that. We're watching that story.

But let's get back to the other breaking news, historic breaking news, here in Washington. All of a sudden the Democrats, the Democratic majority in the United States Senate, they have dramatically changed the rules of the game, no longer allowing filibusters on most major presidential nominations, meaning 60 votes no longer required to get the nomination confirmed through the United States Senate. Only 51 votes, a bare majority, would be needed. The Democrats do have a majority in the Senate. They have 55 votes, 45 for the Republicans. So they clearly can pass these nomination, get them confirmed without that 60-vote threshold, which has been in business in Washington for so many years.

Jeffrey Toobin, this is called the nuclear option that Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, just used successfully to change the rules of the game. Nuclear option because it is dire. It's something that wasn't supposed to happen. Republicans and Democrats have always resisted this for so many years. But now it's been changed. How significant is this, Jeffrey Toobin?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST (via telephone): This is close. Not as important, but it is close to as important as Obamacare is for Barack Obama's legacy because this means he will be able to confirm judges on some of the most important courts in the country, who will serve for decades after President Obama leaves the Oval Office. The D.C. Circuit, where this fight has had its focus, four former D.C. Circuit justices serve on the United States Supreme Court today. John Roberts, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. It's a farm team for the Supreme Court. Barack Obama has had five nominees, four of them have been filibustered, three of them will now get votes and now presumably be confirmed. It's really a very important day.

BLITZER: And it sets an amazing precedent, if you will, for those of us who have covered the United States Senate, Jeffrey, all of these years. The Republicans argue that what they were doing was no big deal, that this court, this D.C. Court of Appeals, was really not that busy, they didn't have that many cases, they didn't really need these new judges to be confirmed and what they were doing was not a big deal. What do you say when you hear those arguments? TOOBIN: Well, it had never been argued before that judges, who are authorized -- there is a longstanding law that says each circuit has a certain number of judges. The Senate doesn't decide which ones are busy and which ones are not. They simply fill the vacancies. This is what all presidents do. So the idea that a president couldn't fill vacant seats on a court because some Senators think the court isn't busy enough was an unprecedented argument.

Was it an unprecedented enough argument to have the rules changed? I suspect we'll have that debate for a very long time. But it was certainly a novel and unusual argument to stop three judges on that ground and I think the Republicans overplayed their hands. I don't think they thought the Democrats would have the guts, frankly, to change the rules. But now they've changed the rules and I anticipate that a lot more judges are going to get confirmed a lot faster.

BLITZER: Yes, a lot of Republicans, they are really angry right now, Gloria. Gloria Borger's watching this with all of us as well. This will energized that Republican base because they're furious right now.


BLITZER: Not just Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, the minority leader, Lamar Alexander, but John McCain and others who have always resisted this. But there were so many Democrats, including Dianne Feinstein, Patrick Leahy, who always resisted this so-called nuclear option as well, but now they flipped.

BORGER: Well, they flipped out of frustration, obviously, particularly on this particular case that Jeff Toobin is talking about. But what the Republicans are warning, they're saying, if you thought things were partisan before this, just wait because the question is, once you eliminate the filibuster on these set of judicial nominees, do you open the door on anything else? And will Republicans then decide, OK, as long as we got the filibuster on everything else, we will filibuster everything else because we believe this was a raw power grab as Lamar Alexander put it. I mean Lamar Alexander said, you know, that this is now a Senate without rules.

BLITZER: Let me play that quick clip from John McCain there.


BLITZER: And underline how angry he is right now about this.



SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I know it puts a chill on the entire United States Senate. It puts a chill on things like the abilities treaty, which we had a hearing on this morning. It puts a chill on everything that requires bipartisanship.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So you're not reaching out to the Democrats that you work with (INAUDIBLE) -- MCCAIN: I've reached out to them for the last two weeks I've reached out to them.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Just last night -

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


BLITZER: All right, so you see John McCain reacting angrily. A lot of people are reacting angrily on the Republican side. Later this hour, by the way, I'll speak with Kentucky Senator Rand Paul about this so- called nuclear option. I'll also going to speak with him about another issue that is generating lots of commotion here in Washington, the military sex assault bill he's working on now. We're going to talk to Rand Paul live this hour. We're standing by. Harry Reid, he's getting ready to meet with reporters. History being made in Washington, D.C., right now. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is now speaking to reporters, defending his decision to use that so-called nuclear option to change the rules of the games on Obama administration nominees. Let's listen in.

SEN. HARRY REID (D), MAJORITY LEADER: This is not a time for celebration. It's a time for being very serious. For too long, Washington has been in gridlock, gridlock, gridlock. The American people are sick of this. We're sick of it. Is it any wonder how people look at Congress?

So as I said a little while ago, enough is enough. And, no, I'm not here talking about how clean we are and how dirty they are or vice versa. When it comes to what's gone on in the - on the Senate floor, there's a lot of blame to go around. But the obstruction we've seen from Republicans against President Obama has reached new heights never dreamed of. Never dreamed of. Never even come close in the history of the country through all the ups and downs we've had as a country.

Remember, for the first 140 years as a country, there were no filibusters. The founding fathers were very clear in what they thought there should be super majorities, impeachments, and, of course, on (INAUDIBLE). And in the same paragraph as it deals with two-thirds votes, specifically the founding fathers did not mention at all other things other than those two things that required a super majority.

In the entire history of our country, there have been 168 filibusters against nominations. So for 230 years, half of them were accomplished. In the last four and a half years, with Obama as president, the other half. In the history of our country, 23 district court judges have been filibustered. Two hundred and thirty years, 20. I'm sorry, 230 years, three, four and a half years, 20.

Under President Obama, even consensus judicial nominees have been forced to wait an average 100 days longer for confirmation than President Bush. We have one nominee who deals with making sure the water we drink, the air we breathe is pure. He's been waiting almost 890 days because they don't like the agency, that (INAUDIBLE) Environmental Protection Agency.

It's an undeniable fact the obstruction we've seen this (ph) year is something altogether new and very, very different. So this is not just about Republicans versus Democrats. It's 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.

The status quo of middle - of this gridlock has guaranteed that the middle class gets no attention whatsoever. So the most important distinction today is between those who are willing to solve this problem and those who defend the status quo. How can anyone in good conscience defend the status quo? And for people to stand and say we are -- you're breaking the rules to change the rules. Since 1977, the rules have been changed 38 times -- 18 times, sorry. I'm sorry about that. I got my numbers mixed up. Rules are changed all the time. Senator Byrd, the master of the Senate number two, he went forward and changed the rules a lot of times. We've changed the rules here. We've done it, just in recent years. But today's vote we declared we're on the side of the problem solvers, and that's really true.

It's simple fairness. The changes that we made today will apply equally to both parties. When Republicans are in power, these changes will apply to them as well. That's simple fairness. And it's something both sides should be willing to live with to make Washington work again. And that also is simple fairness.

You know the Republicans are defending what's going on here. How can you do that? The D.C. Circuit, you know, they -- I got -- last night I got a call from one of my Republican friends saying, Harry, we've got a deal for you. I'm anxious to listen.