Friday, April 22, 2005


Will the Republicans "go nuclear"? (updated)

The Senate Republicans find themselves on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, their insistence that they will use the "nuclear option" of ending the Senate's filibuster rule if an up-or-down vote is not allowed for some of their more rabid judicial nominees means that they now must carry through with the threat. If they don't, the Christian Right will accuse them of betrayal. And those people who toted signs outside Terri Schiavo's nursing home may end up carrying them outside Bill Frist's office.

On the other hand, if they hold the vote, they will almost certainly lose. In other circumstances, on other issues, this really wouldn't matter, but this time it does.1 A component of their power rests in the projection of invincibility, which creates a positive feedback cycle with their projection of godliness. And since they chose to link their assault on the federal judiciary with the Terri Schiavo case, the attack on the judiciary has become a holy war. Our Republican holy warriors so far have been invincible because, as with the emperor Constantine, God is on their side, and the proof that God is on their side is that they've been winning. A loss would not only demonstrate that they are not invincible, but then raises the question of whether they had the support of the Lord in the first place.

But there are other negatives to holding a vote on the filibuster that should be equally alarming for them. Polls are showing the majority of Americans in opposition to ending the filibuster rule.2 The Schiavo case has finally frightened the public sufficiently of the Christian Right that they want the brakes on power to stay in place. It has also raised the level of suspicion as to just what the Republicans are up to. So if they bring the filibuster to a vote, they will be confirming what their enemies have been saying all along—that they are power mad, oblivious to the traditions of the Senate, in the grasp of the Christian Right, and so forth.3 All this just to lose?

And perhaps the greatest negative is that they risk splitting off a portion of their base. This is a genuine wedge issue, and if the Democrats don't make the most of it, they should stick their tails between their legs and go home. But the signs are that Senator Harry Reid, for one, does understand this.

This is the essence of the Republican dilemma: Either action—to hold the vote or let the matter die—appears guaranteed to alienate a significant portion of their base. If they don't at least try to end the filibuster rule, the Christian Right will be furious. And if they do try, the libertarians and economic conservatives are going to be outraged—and even more so in the unlikely event that they should prevail on the vote.

In the midst of all this, they have another problem—timing. Two events—one already accomplished and the other imminent—are pushing the issue further to the fore, which means the Republicans are not going to be able to two-step. They're going to have to boogie.4

Yesterday the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the nominations of Priscilla Owen and Janice Rogers Brown to the appellate court. These are two of the nominees previously filibustered. Then for thematic counterpoint we have "Justice Sunday" coming up this weekend sponsored by the Family Research Council (FRC). The speakers will include James Dobson, Al Mohler, Chuck Colson and ... Senator Bill Frist. It's to be nationally televised via Christian cable and is sure to draw a great deal of coverage and commentary in the mainstream media.5

The expectations are clear enough—

"Our goal is to reach as many people as possible and to engage values voters in the all-important issue of reining in our out-of-control courts and putting a halt to the use of filibusters against people of faith," says [FRC President] Tony Perkins.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee is committed to returning constitutional order to the Senate by requiring an up-or-down vote on these nominees as the Senate has always had in the past. To do this, he urgently needs the help of every values voter. Without doubt, this will be the most important vote cast in the United States Senate in this term. If this effort fails, the best we can hope for are likely to be mediocre judges who meet the approval of Ted Kennedy, Charles Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton. We must stop this unprecedented filibuster of people of faith."

It will be interesting to hear what Frist has to say. This may be the public's best opportunity to learn just which way the wind is blowing. Will Frist begin to backpedal on holding the vote? Will he explain what a loss may mean in terms that suggest it might be wiser not to hold the vote at all? Or will he give—as the FRC clearly expects—an all-hands-on-deck, man-the-battle-stations sort of talk?


My tea leaves have gone limp from all the steam that's rising from this issue, but you don't need tea leaves to see that the Democrats are, for once, in a win-win situation and more importantly, that it's a lose-lose situation for the Republicans.

It doesn't matter if the filibuster-destroying vote is held or postponed, and it doesn't matter—should the vote be held—whether the Republicans win or lose it. They are going to lose with a portion of their base and they are going to lose with the general public.

My suspicion is that the Republicans will at least attempt to delay the vote. They will do a great deal of talking about trying to reach a "compromise" with the Democrats to bolster the argument that the vote on the filibuster rule is a "last resort." But in the end, the Christian Right is not going to let them off the hook, and my guess is that the vote will be taken at some point.

A point that no one is making about the filibuster rule is that just as it only requires a simple majority to end it, it only requires a simple majority to reinstate it. Of course, should the Democrats find themselves in control of the Senate in less than two years after the Republicans have ended the filibuster rule, the Democrats may discover that they didn't need the filibuster for judicial appointments after all. I can hear the cries of the Republican "victims" even now, and I fear that my sentiments are akin to the lip-smacking pleasure of those who contemplate the torture of souls in hell.

8:50 pm

Sure 'nuff, the Republicans are blustering with all their might, but if David Kirkpatrick of the NY Times has his facts straight, you will think I was cheating when I wrote my conclusions—

Senate aides say that Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the Republican majority leader, has decided to defer a fight over the rule change until at least after the May recess, postponing a confrontation that many had anticipated might occur as early as next week. Many in the party are pushing Dr. Frist to try to settle the rule change before the end of the Supreme Court term in June - a time when retiring justices typically announce their departures - but he has resisted establishing a timetable in order to leave himself a free hand.

Today, his spokesman, Bob Stevenson, said Dr. Frist intends to offer the Democrats a compromise, while guaranteeing "up or down votes."

The other news of the day is that Vice President Cheney has involved the administration in the matter. (Shades of Bush flying back from Texas to sign the Schiavo bill!)—

"If the Senate majority decides to move forward and if the issue is presented to me in my elected office as president of the Senate and presiding officer, I will support bringing those nominations to the floor for an up-or-down vote," Mr. Cheney said. "On the merits, this should not be a difficult call to make."

Harry Reid was quick to answer and didn't mince words—

Senator Harry Reid ... responded by accusing Mr. McConnell of bluffing and President Bush of lying.

His press release titled "Bush Goes Back on Word and Encourages Irresponsible Abuse of Power" says it best—

“In the span of three minutes, the vice president managed to reinvent 200 years of Senate history and ignore the fact that Congress has already approved 205 of this administration’s nominees. Apparently, a 95 percent confirmation rate is not enough for this president. He wants it all, even if it means shattering the checks and balances in our government in order to put radical judges on the bench.

“Last week, I met with the president and was encouraged when he told me he would not become involved in Republican efforts to break the Senate rules. Now, it appears he was not being honest, and that the White House is encouraging this raw abuse of power.

“It is disturbing that Republicans have so little respect for the separation of powers established by our founding fathers. Based on his comments last week, I had hoped that the president was prepared to join Democrats in taking up the work of the American people, but it is clear this is no longer the case. If the White House and Congress insists on proceeding down this road, Democrats will do all we can to ensure that Congress pursues an agenda the American people can be proud of.”

Note that this press release was issued by the Senate Democratic Communications Center, a new media powerhouse for the Democrats that Reid has assembled. I'm impressed with the speed of the response. The Republicans are whining that they have nothing like it.

Related posts
Phil E. Buster recuperates after Terri Schiavo's death (4/13/05)


1 As I quote later on, the Family Research Council has identified this as "the most important vote cast in the United States Senate in this term." [back]

2 Dick Morris, Bill Clinton's former political advisor now turned enemy, yesterday quoted from a Newsweek poll taken in mid-March that concludes—

Only 32 percent approved of the change in rules, while 57 percent, including 60 percent of independents, opposed it. Even among Republicans, 33 percent disapproved of the change in the rules.

And Alexander Boston, writing today in The Hill, says the numbers from the Republicans' internal party polls are bringing no pleasure—

Details of the polling numbers remain under wraps, but Santorum and other Senate sources concede that, while a majority of Americans oppose the filibuster, the figures show that most also accept the Democratic message that Republicans are trying to destroy the tradition of debate in the Senate.

The Republicans are keeping the “nuclear” poll numbers secret, whereas they have often in the past been keen to release internal survey results that favor the party.


3 Dick Morris writes,

His attempt to bar a filibuster will be seen as an effort to steamroll America into accepting the radical-right agenda on moral issues and will cost Bush the ballast he needs to appeal to the center of American politics.

4 Alexander Bolton claims that Senator Santorum, the other great nuclear bomber in the Senate, wants to delay the vote.

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), a leading advocate of the “nuclear option” to end the Democrats’ filibuster of judicial nominees, is privately arguing for a delay in the face of adverse internal party polls.

Santorum said he has left the timing to Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

“I’ve been suggesting one way or the other we need to make a decision. I haven’t said [a] longer or shorter” timeframe should be followed, he said.

But GOP aides said Santorum has made known to the leadership reasons for why Republicans should not move forward on the nuclear or constitutional option.

“He was concerned that too many things are competing in the same area and you couldn’t get a clean shot at it,” a GOP aide said. The aide cited the “fallout” from congressional Republicans’ intervening in a Florida court’s decision to remove Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube and the subsequent controversy caused by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s (R-Texas) statement that “the time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior.”


5 The meeting has already attracted quite a bit of commentary in the MSM, which has been helpfully collected by Frederick Clarkson at Daily Kos. [back]

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