Saturday, April 23, 2005

Cheney Backs End of Filibustering

The New York Times
April 23, 2005
Cheney Backs End of Filibustering

WASHINGTON, April 22 - Vice President Dick Cheney plunged the White House into the judicial confirmation battle on Friday by saying he supported changing the Senate rules to stop the Democrats from blocking judicial nominees and would, if needed, provide the tie-breaking vote.

In addition on Friday, Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority Republican whip, asserted that Republicans would have the votes needed to execute that change.

"There is no justification for allowing the blocking of nominees who are well qualified and broadly supported," Mr. Cheney told a gathering of the Republican National Lawyers Association. "The tactics of the last few years, I believe, are inexcusable.

"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," he said. "On the merits, this should not be a difficult call to make."

Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic minority leader, responded by accusing Mr. McConnell of bluffing and President Bush of lying.

"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," Mr. Reid said in a statement, referring to a breakfast held between President Bush and Congressional leaders. "Now it appears he was not being honest, and that the White House is encouraging this raw abuse of power."

Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, said Mr. Cheney's comments showed that the White House had "stepped over the line by interfering with the Senate to reduce checks and balances," adding, "The White House has always wanted to reduce the Senate's power."

The statements by Mr. Cheney and Mr. McConnell redoubled the Republican commitment to making good on their threat. Senate Republican leaders have faced advertisements from liberal interest groups attacking the move, internal polls showing the public is of two minds about the issue, a chilly response from business-group lobbying allies and several expressions of reluctance from a handful of Republican senators.

Senate aides say that Senator Bill Frist, 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 expected 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 never set a timetable. On Friday, his spokesman, Bob Stevenson, said Dr. Frist still intended to offer the Democrats a compromise, although he has said any proposal would still entail confirming the nominees.

Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee is continuing to set the stage for a possible showdown. Next week, the committee plans to send to the floor at least two more appeals court nominees over Democratic opposition, bringing the number of nominees on deck for approval to six.

The Democrats have indicated they plan to block four of those by employing a filibuster, a parliamentary tactic used by Congressional minorities to hold up a vote.

Senate rules require 60 votes to close debate on a confirmation, allowing Democrats to thwart the action by mustering 41 votes.

Republicans, who have a 55-member majority, are threatening to lower the threshold for closing debate on all nominations to a simple majority. They say they need only 50 votes plus Vice President Cheney to make the change. Democrats call this the nuclear option, and say they will use other parliamentary rules to bring the Senate to a virtual standstill if Republicans use it.

Democrats have blocked about 10 of Mr. Bush's roughly 50 appellate court nominees, although that is only a small percentage of the more than 200 total judges that have been confirmed.

One of those scheduled for approval by the committee is Judge William H. Pryor Jr., a Catholic and opponent of abortion rights whose previously blocked nomination has become a favorite cause of the party's Christian conservative wing. Republican strategists, however, said Friday that Judge Priscilla R. Owen, a friend of the president from Texas, was favored as the poster nominee for the filibuster fight, and that it could occur as early as the second week of May, when the Senate returns from recess.

But Republicans did not persuade some of their closest allies.

On Thursday afternoon, Dr. Frist convened a meeting with top officials of major business groups, including the United States Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, to enlist their support for the fight, officials of the groups said.

But the business groups pointedly declined to back him, these officials said, in part because in response Democrats have threatened to tie the Senate in knots that would block the group's legislative priorities like the energy bill and tort reform. The next morning, Tom Donohue, president of the United States Chamber of Commerce, told a gathering of journalists that the group had no interest in supporting the fight over the confirmation rules.

Some Republican senators continue to express reservations. Two, John McCain of Arizona and Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island, have said they oppose the move.

On Wednesday, Senator Arlen Specter, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, warned that the parties were headed for "mutually assured destruction."

"At certain junctures of American history," Mr. Specter said in a speech on the floor, "the fate of our system of government has rested on the ability of members of this body to transcend party loyalty for national interest," he said. "I believe the Senate currently faces such a challenge between party-line voting on filibusters and potential voting on the 'constitutional or so-called nuclear' option."

Internal polls conducted for Senate Republicans by the Winston Group show they have their work cut out for them, said a person familiar with the results. Asked about the plan to end the Democrats judicial filibusters, 51 percent of respondents oppose the idea and 37 percent support it. But 80 percent believed that nominees deserve a yes-or-no vote, this person said.

Several conservative groups, including the anti-union National Right to Work Committee, the Gun Owners of America and the National Pro Life Alliance, oppose the change, arguing that conservatives have often relied on filibusters too.

Theodore B. Olson, President Bush's former solicitor general, wrote in an op-ed article published Thursday in The Wall Street Journal that both parties should "stop using judicial appointments to excite special interest constituencies and political fund-raising."

Still, Friday morning, Senator McConnell told the Christian Broadcasting Network that "what Senate Republicans are simply trying to do is get us back to the procedure that operated quite nicely for 214 years" when judicial appointments were voted up or down on the floor.

Mr. McConnell added, "We will have the votes."