Showdown vote set for judicial filibusters
WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans set the stage for a showdown Tuesday over the filibusters blocking several of President Bush's judicial nominees, a historic vote that could determine whether an out-of-power party can stop a president from placing like-minded jurists on the nation's highest courts.
Unless compromise-minded centrists can strike a deal before then, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist will force a test vote Tuesday on Texas Judge Priscilla Owen's nomination to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Under the expected chain of events set in motion Friday:
If the nomination doesn't garner 60 votes -- the threshold for overcoming a filibuster -- Frist then will have the presiding officer, expected to be Vice President Dick Cheney in his role as Senate president, declare that filibusters are illegal for Supreme Court and federal appellate court nominees.
The Republican majority presumably then would uphold that ruling, a procedure that has become known as the "nuclear option" because some senators say it would blow up relations between the two parties.
"The Senate clock centered above the vice president's chair is in a countdown, second by second, to the appointed hour and minute when a nuclear explosion may render the Senate inoperative, or at least do substantial damage to this institution," said Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Philadelphia.
GOP Sen. John Cornyn, a former judge who served with Owen on the Texas Supreme Court, started the countdown yesterday by demanding a vote on her nomination. When Democratic leader Harry Reid blocked that vote, Cornyn called for the Tuesday test vote that would lead to a decision on the filibusters of all seven of Bush's blocked judicial nominees.
"If we were just permitted to cast a vote, a bipartisan majority would confirm these nominees today," Cornyn said. "This really amounts to a veto. A partisan minority has attempted to cast a veto of majority rights, bipartisan majority rights."
Democrats argue that they are within their rights to filibuster judicial nominees and that Republicans are overstepping the bounds by trying to stop them. They threaten to block the president's legislative agenda if Frist is successful at eliminating judicial filibusters.
"This extralegal changing of the Senate rules will cause a permanent tear in the Senate fabric because it violates a deeply held American value -- playing by the rules," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.
While it takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, Republicans intend to supersede the rule by a simple majority vote. With 55 seats, Republicans could afford five defections if all 100 members vote and still prevail on the strength of Cheney's ability to break ties.
Senate centrists are trying to avert Tuesday's showdown, but three days of backroom negotiations have yet to produce a deal in which six Republicans and six Democrats are willing to block Frist from banning filibusters and block Reid from filibustering all of Bush's controversial nominees.
"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, R-Ohio, one of the compromisers.