As the Senate moves toward a showdown over the so-called nuclear
option, risks and rewards confront both Republicans and Democrats,
whatever the outcome.
Both sides concede that the move to lower the threshold required
to end a filibuster from 60 votes to a simple majority could shut
down the Senate. But it's not clear for how long, with what
consequences, and who would be blamed if the Senate's work grinds to
When almost half of federal employees stopped work at noon on
Nov. 14, 1995, President Clinton blamed the Republican Congress.
Most Americans believed him. The GOP lost seats in the 1996
elections, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich later resigned.
A similar Armageddon scenario is shaping up in the Senate, as two
of President Bush's most controversial judicial nominees await a
For Republicans, it's a test of whether they can move the
president's nominees through a Senate they now control with a margin
of five votes. The judicial impasse has become a defining issue for
Senate majority leader Bill Frist, who is weighing a presidential
run in 2008.
For Democrats, the challenge is to hold the line on nominees they
deem unqualified, while avoiding the label "obstructionist." Former
Senate minority leader Tom Daschle lost his seat in the 2004
election after outside groups poured millions into his state to
promote that view.
"The Senate is about to enter its own cold war," says Jennifer
Duffy, Senate analyst for the Cook Political Report. "Democrats have
done a very good job of backing [Senate majority leader Bill] Frist
into a corner and keeping him there."
At the same time, powerful interest groups in both camps are
fueling the conflict with ad campaigns, petition drives, and rallies
outside the US Senate. Both sides accuse the other of being driven
by "extremist groups."
In a videotaped speech to a Christian conservative rally in
Louisville, Ky., on Sunday, Senator Frist renewed his call for what
Republicans now call the "constitutional option," should Democrats
filibuster another judicial nominee. "Now if Senator Reid continues
to obstruct the process, we will consider what opponents call the
'nuclear option.' Only in the United States Senate could it be
considered a devastating option to allow a vote. Most places call
that democracy," Frist said.
At a Monitor breakfast on Monday, Senator Democratic leader Harry
Reid gave no signs of backing off the filibuster threat. For the
first time, he also laid out plans for a post nuclear-option Senate.
"I have always said we wanted to make sure that the Senate went
forward, but we're going to do it on our own agenda," he said.
In recent days, Democrats have been quietly putting their own
bills on the Senate calendar. Using an obscure Senate procedure
called Rule XIV, they plan to move these bills onto the agenda if
Republicans "pull the trigger" on the nuclear option. …