Monday, April 18, 2005

Busting the Filibuster

Much has been discussed over the weekend about the risks and benefits facing both parties as the Republicans weigh the wisdom of breaking the filibuster over judicial nominations in the Senate. The Republicans, led by a fairly tentative Bill Frist are increasingly wobbly when it comes to challenging the Democrats who have used this same tactic in the past. And much of the problem is their own fault.

To be technical, what we are witnessing is not a filibuster. It is a group of Democrats blocking a majority vote on judicial appointments. For it to be a true filibuster, the Dems would have to actually hold the floor for debate and do things like read books aloud or just spout off until they fell to the floor from exhaustion. And the Republicans should have held them to that. If a real filibuster were enforced, I somehow doubt that all 44 Senate Democrats would participate in a 24/7 physical presence on the floor of reading or making speeches.

Nonetheless, the Republicans have done what they have done. But what irks me is that they forgot the results of 2 1/2 years ago and 5 months ago. In 2002, the President made the case for Senators who would not obstruct national business for partisan advantage. America bought it (especially after the memorial service for the late Senator Paul Wellstone which was a putrid display of partisan rancor, showing the national Democrats for what they really are), and increased the Republicans' representation in the Senate. People didn't like pointless petty partisanship and rejected it in the voting booth.

And they did the same in 2004. The President had a war on his hands, the resolution of which was very uncertain. He also was not running on a terrific economy. The indicators spelled doom for him. Nonetheless he was re-elected and increased his party's representation in the Senate. But someone was not so fortunate.

Tom Daschle's political career was ended. Bush took the battle to South Dakota and make abundantly clear to the residents that their senior senator was an unprincipled obstructionist who talked the good talk at home, but led the ranks of the left in Washington. The message? Bush is not someone to cross lightly, and people don't like excuses for obstruction.

By way of history, recall the Republicans' obstruction of Hillary Clinton's health care nationalization legislation in 1994. They paid no price for their obstruction despite cries of foul by the Dems and their allies in the media. On the contrary. In an overwhelming victory, they broke the Democrats' control on the House, Senate, and Governor's Mansions across the country that fall. People don't mind obstruction if it is a bad thing being blocked.

But the Dems have made no such showing about Bush's Federal bench appointees. Granted, they have accused them of being extremists, racists (despite in one case, a nominee working for an expansion of civil rights in the south), and any other outlandish label they felt they could apply. To a very significant extent, the Senate Democrats are taking their hate for the President out on the people whom he advances for judicial office.

So to prevent further obstruction, the Republican leadership proposes to end the use of filibusters for judicial nominees only. But a few liberal Republican Senators, namely Olympia Snowe (R-ME), Susan Collins (R-ME), Lincoln Chafee (R-RI), John Sununu (R-NH), and Arlen Specter (R-PA) are giving indications that they respect the Democrats' ire more than the people's business. Then, of course, there is Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) who needs to be loved by Democrats more than his own party and offered spurious rationale for supporting the Dems. His political twin brother and perpetual crank, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) whose only purpose seems to be to publicly make life difficult for the President may go along with the Republicans in such a vote, but not before he airs his misgivings in a transparent attempt to get more camera and air time.

But when a vote comes (and I did say when), all bets are off. If Frist balks and never calls a vote, he will lose the confidence of the Republican conference and will end his presidential hopes. If he calls it without demanding loyalty among Senate Republicans and without, perhaps threatening sanctions for those who defect in terms of reduced assistance from the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee funds, (needed by the likes of Chafee and Snowe next year), he will potentially have an embarrassment on his hands.

Frist should whip his conference properly. He needs to inform the more liberal members that the party has stuck by them during their tough moments and that it will do so again if they remain faithful, but that there is no room for those who participate with the Dems in a partisan blocking of national business. He should then call a vote. Those refusing to stop the Dems would be on record. He would be on record for having done all he could. And Bush would get another issue to take to the people in 2006 to win another off-year election.

Because people won't mind if obstruction is broken and a few judges get to their posts. But they will mind one party stopping their business for no good reason. And a result like that of November 2002 is not completely unforseeable.

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