Sunday, March 06, 2005

The Senate on the Brink

The New York Times
March 6, 2005

The Senate on the Brink

The White House's insistence on choosing only far-right judicial nominees has already damaged the federal courts. Now it threatens to do grave harm to the Senate. If Republicans fulfill their threat to overturn the historic role of the filibuster in order to ram the Bush administration's nominees through, they will be inviting all-out warfare and perhaps an effective shutdown of Congress. The Republicans are claiming that 51 votes should be enough to win confirmation of the White House's judicial nominees. This flies in the face of Senate history. Republicans and Democrats should tone down their rhetoric, then sit down and negotiate.

President Bush likes to complain about the divisive atmosphere in Washington. But he has contributed to it mightily by choosing federal judges from the far right of the ideological spectrum. He started his second term with a particularly aggressive move: resubmitting seven nominees whom the Democrats blocked last year by filibuster.

The Senate has confirmed the vast majority of President Bush's choices. But Democrats have rightly balked at a handful. One of the seven renominated judges is William Myers, a former lobbyist for the mining and ranching industries who demonstrated at his hearing last week that he is an antienvironmental extremist who lacks the evenhandedness necessary to be a federal judge. Another is Janice Rogers Brown, who has disparaged the New Deal as "our socialist revolution."

To block the nominees, the Democrats' weapon of choice has been the filibuster, a time-honored Senate procedure that prevents a bare majority of senators from running roughshod. Republican leaders now claim that judicial nominees are entitled to an up-or-down vote. This is rank hypocrisy. When the tables were turned, Republicans filibustered President Bill Clinton's choice for surgeon general, forcing him to choose another. And Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, who now finds judicial filibusters so offensive, himself joined one against Richard Paez, a Clinton appeals court nominee.

Yet these very same Republicans are threatening to have Vice President Dick Cheney rule from the chair that a simple majority can confirm a judicial nominee rather than the 60 votes necessary to stop a filibuster. This is known as the "nuclear option" because in all likelihood it would blow up the Senate's operations. The Senate does much of its work by unanimous consent, which keeps things moving along and prevents ordinary day-to-day business from drowning in procedural votes. But if Republicans change the filibuster rules, Democrats could respond by ignoring the tradition of unanimous consent and making it difficult if not impossible to get anything done. Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has warned that "the Senate will be in turmoil and the Judiciary Committee will be hell."

Despite his party's Senate majority, however, Mr. Frist may not have the votes to go nuclear. A sizable number of Republicans - including John McCain, Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, Lincoln Chafee and John Warner - could break away. For them, the value of confirming a few extreme nominees may be outweighed by the lasting damage to the Senate. Besides, majorities are temporary, and they may want to filibuster one day.

There is one way to avert a showdown. The White House should meet with Senate leaders of both parties and come up with a list of nominees who will not be filibustered. This means that Mr. Bush - like Presidents Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush before him - would agree to submit nominees from the broad mainstream of legal thought, with a commitment to judging cases, not promoting a political agenda.

The Bush administration likes to call itself "conservative," but there is nothing conservative about endangering one of the great institutions of American democracy, the United States Senate, for the sake of an ideological crusade.