Judicial Nominee Logjam? Change the Rules. ; Republican Leaders Want to Make It Harder to Block Nominations by Filibuster

Article excerpt

After eight failed efforts to break a standoff over two judicial nominations, the Senate GOP leadership is brandishing what insiders are calling the "nuclear" option: a bid to change the rules - and the nature - of the Senate.

Senate Republican leaders are proposing a new rule to end filibusters on judicial nominees by a simple majority vote, rather than the 60 votes that Senate rules now require.

Such a move would challenge one of the deepest personal perogatives in the Senate: the right of Senators to hold the floor and extend debate on issues they deem critical. It would also effectively shut down what is emerging as the Democrats main strategy for influencing judicial nominations.

What's putting the Senate particularly on edge is the prospect that the change may come not by a standard quorum vote, which would likely fail, but by a ruling from the chair, upheld by a simple majority vote.

"That's the nuclear scenario. It blows everything out of the water because it would fundamentally change how the Senate does business," says an expert involved in these deliberations. If such parliamentary machinations succeed, he adds, it could open up other Senate rules to changes.

To outsiders, tinkering with the number of votes required to limit debate may look arcane. But the rules that govern when talk ends and voting starts are the ultimate weapon in Senate politics.

That senators would even consider paring down their rights to debate is a sign of how high the stakes have become on the federal bench - and how bitterly partisan the climate on Capitol Hill.

"It's hard to see how the partisanship on Capitol Hill could get a lot worse, but this move could do it," says political analyst Charles Cook of the Cook Political Report.

A long history

The Founding Fathers set no limits on debate in either chamber - an omission that has been criticized before. In 1917, President Wilson called on the Senate to amend its rules on unlimited debate to "save the country from disaster," after "11 willful men" blocked his requests for new powers on the eve of World War I. Later in the century, epic filibusters delayed civil rights and antilynching laws for decades. In response, liberals changed the rules in 1975 to make it easier to end floor debate.

But until recently, the use of the filibuster to block judicial nominations has been rare: It was used only once by Republicans, to scuttle President Johnson's 1968 nomination of Abe Fortas as chief justice. Now, Democrats are using filibusters to block Bush nominees Miguel Estrada and Priscilla Owen to federal appellate courts. …