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
"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. …