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The filibuster

I subscribe to a e-mail list called Politically Savvy Friends, which is irregularly published by Jon Delano, Political Analyst at Carnegie Mellon's H. John Heinz School of Public Policy. It focuses primarily on Pennsylvania politics, especially Western Pennsylvania. But it is very readable and always interesting.

On 2 June 2005 Mr Delano wrote, among other things, about the political battle in the U.S. Senate over the filibuster. As I told him when I wrote to obtain his permission to post these comments, "[Y]ou have provided what seems to me to be the only balanced and reasonable reporting I've heard, seen or read on the battle over the filibuster." I hope you agree, even though it is now a month and a half later.

Filibuster Fantasies:

As a flaming moderate, I kind of like the Gang of 14's attempt to restore balance in a deeply partisan Senate, but it remains to be seen whether the compromise that U.S. Sens. John Warner and John McCain thrashed out will stick. All along this battle has not really been over the GOP mantra of an 'up or down vote' on the president's judicial nominees. It's been about power and the traditional Senate respect for accommodation, compromise, and the minority party.

Senate Rule 5 requires a two-thirds vote (67 senators) to change the Senate rules. In a Senate divided 55-44-1, the Republican majority simply did not have the votes to amend the filibuster rule to exclude its use on judicial nominees. So White House strategists with the strong support of the three Senate leaders (U.S. Sens. Bill Frist, Mitch McConnell, and Rick Santorum) concocted an end-run around Rule 5. They would use a parliamentary gimmick to object to the use of the filibuster on a judicial nominee, have the chair (Vice President Cheney) make a ruling sustaining the objection, and then use their simple majority (or Cheney breaking a tie 50-50 vote) to confirm the procedural ruling, thereby amending the filibuster rule.

It was diabolically clever but, at the same time, highly offensive to Senate traditionalists who know that the two-thirds requirement of Rule 5 protects everyone in the long-run. Democrats immediately cried 'arrogance of power' and promised a slow-down in non-security business. The so-called nuclear option was avoided when Warner, McCain, and five other Republicans (in all, four conservatives and three liberals) joined seven Democrats to cut a deal.

So far, it appears that Bush has been the victor of the deal because a number of his judge candidates so anathema to the Democrats will be confirmed. But the true test will come when the President submits a Supreme Court nominee. Unless Bush bends over backwards to work with moderate Democratic senators, that nominee will surely be filibustered. And, at that time, the seven Republicans will be expected to hold up their end of the bargain. Will they do so? Wait and see.

Jon Delano


[As always, these views are my own and not those of any of the wonderful organizations with whom I am associated].

Reprinted with permission.

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