Senators Working on Filibuster Compromise
Two Senate graybeards, John Warner and Robert Byrd, are working on a compromise solution to avert the so-called “nuclear option” from being invoked early next week.
Two of the Senate’s senior statesmen, Republican John Warner and Democrat Robert Byrd, are stepping to the forefront of efforts to avert a showdown over whether an out-of-power party can use Senate filibusters to effectively thwart a president from reshaping the nation’s courts to his liking. But time was running out on Byrd and Warner’s attempt to bridge warring senatorial factions, with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., starting a countdown Friday on how long senators would debate Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen’s nomination to the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
If senators are forced to vote next week on Owen’s nomination to the New Orleans-based court, centrists say a historic confrontation is sure to follow over whether filibusters of appellate and Supreme Court nominees should be prohibited during the rest of the Bush presidency. “Once you start into the procedural votes, the real procedural votes on the first judge, then it’s going to be very difficult to put the genie back into the bottle,” said Sen. Mike DeWine (news, bio, voting record), R-Ohio. “I think most of us look at that as once you have that first vote, it’s going to be very difficult to get a deal done.”
Frist was expected to announce Friday that the Senate would hold a test vote on Owen on Tuesday, and if she doesn’t garner 60 votes Ã¢€” the threshold for overcoming a filibuster Ã¢€” he then will move to have the Senate declare that filibusters are illegal for Supreme Court and federal appellate court nominees Ã¢€” a change that has been labeled the “nuclear option.”
The Republican-controlled Senate has been debating Owen’s nomination since Wednesday. “We will continue that debate,” Frist said. “Ten hours, 20 hours, 30 hours, as many hours as it takes for senators to air their views. But at some point, that debate should end and there should be a vote.”
I doubt that Warner and Byrd will be able to work out an acceptable solution. The level of trust on both sides of the aisle is simply too low. Republicans, legitimately in my view, believe that they should be able to get an up-or-down vote on presidential nominees in a situation where the public has installed them as the majority in both Houses of Congress and in the White House. Democrats, also legitimately, believe that the institution of the filibuster is a time honored right of strong minorities.
The problem is that the filibuster has gone from a tool invoked in rare occasions on matters of stong principle to a routine legislative tactic. In that environment, it wrecks the entire balance of the system. In a more collegial environment, the rule change would be unnecessary because both sides could agree that only the most controversial judges should be subject to this procedure. When it’s used on the likes of Bill Pryor or Priscilla Owen, candidates well within the American mainstream, it’s hard to defend.