GOP in US Senate Prepares to Eliminate Filibuster
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release March 28, 2005
Majority in U.S. Senate Prepares to Eliminate Filibuster in
Effort to Confirm Extremist Judges
Interview with Elliott Minceberg, vice president and legal
director of People for the American Way, conducted by Scott
Listen in RealAudio:
http://www.btlonline.org/minceberg040105.ram (Needs RealOne player or RealPlayer)
After victories in the 2004 election, the Republican party -- in control of the presidency, Congress and a good part of the judiciary branch of government -- has become increasingly bold in pursuing its conservative agenda. In a string of controversial moves, President Bush has nominated John Bolton to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz to move from the Pentagon to head the World Bank. This comes as the White House makes threats against Syria, advocates the privatization of Social Security and proposes dramatic cuts in social programs while offering ever-larger tax cuts to the wealthy.
In the U.S. Senate, the Republican majority is threatening to use extraordinary parliamentary maneuvers to eliminate the filibuster, the Democrat's only tool to block lifetime judicial appointments they view as extremist. The GOP idea of abolishing the filibuster, a Senate institution for over 200 years, has infuriated Senate Democrats and led them to threaten non-cooperation in future legislative matters if the so-called "nuclear option" is approved.
Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Elliot Minceberg, vice president and legal director with People for the American Way, who examines the plan to eliminate the filibuster and other unprecedented actions, such as congressional intervention in the life-support case of Terry Schiavo. He explains how these political tactics have led some observers to conclude that the Republican majority is engaging in a gross abuse of power.
Elliot Minceberg: I do think that the Republican leadership in the House and the Senate has shown a disturbing willingness to use anything they can for political advantage, whether it is intervening in these life and death situations or breaking the rules of the game as they've been for hundreds of years in the Senate and the House -- to do whatever they can for temporary partisan political advantage -- even throwing aside the checks and balances that have made our country great. That's important even in the Schiavo case. It's the job of courts to adjudicate these kinds of terribly wrenching disputes and not to throw Congress in the middle of it.
Between The Lines: The Senate Republicans under Majority Leader Bill Frist are contemplating a parliamentary maneuver to do away with the minority party's ability to filibuster and block judicial nominations and so on -- the so-called "nuclear option." Are the Republicans capable of pulling this off, and what is the Democrat's likely response?
Elliot Minceberg: Well, it's another example of what we're talking about, the willingness to bend or break the rules to achieve temporary political advantage. Two hundred fourteen nominees by President Bush were considered by the Senate over the first four years. A grand total of ten were blocked by Democrats, that's less than 5 percent, because they were so very extreme in nature -- including a nominee for example from Texas Pricilla Owen -- who was so far to the right that even Alberto Gonzalez (President Bush's newly named and confirmed attorney general) when he was on the Texas Supreme Court with her called an opinion of hers an example of outright judicial activism for example.
Because of this, because they didn't get 100 percent they only got 95 percent; the Republicans are claiming that the use of filibusters breaks Senate rules when in fact, it's exactly the opposite. For more than 200 years the use of the filibuster, or extended debate to block something, to make sure that the rights of the minority are protected, has been a hallmark of what we've seen in the United States Senate. And what some Republicans in the leadership are prepared to do is to break the rules in order to change the rules. To change them without following the usual procedures, but have a bare majority simply declare that the filibuster is out of bounds when it comes to judicial nominations.
We're very hopeful that they won't be able to get the votes to do that. There are some moderate Republicans such as Sen. Lincoln Chaffee (R.I.) who have come out against it. Some such as Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) has said he has severe doubts about it. But, we will probably find out some time in April or May whether they can pull together the 50 votes to do this frankly naked power play to take away a safeguard that's been around for literally hundreds of years.
Between The Lines: In the long run, what is the danger in your view, to our system of government if the Republicans should succeed here -- and aren't the Republicans in some way being short-sighted given the fact that they will someday be in the minority -- let's hope it's quite soon, and they, too, will be subjected to these rules changes?
Elliot Minceberg: Well to take your second point first -- you're absolutely right and indeed there have been a number of conservatives, people like George Will and former Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.) who've come out against the "nuclear option," who have said the filibuster is important because minorities and majorities shift.
The long-term consequence in essence would be turn the Senate into just like the House, where a bare majority rules. Where things can be pushed through on a just bare majority vote . The result of which is to severely harm the rights of the minority. And in the Senate, the minority of the Senate sometimes is actually the majority of the U.S. population when you consider that every state has two U.S. senators. It would be extremely destructive to the politics and to our basic systems of government. Not to mention, of course, that what it would do, would be to give the president literally a blank check -- at least in this Congress -- for nominations, not only to the lower federal courts but at the Supreme Court. If all he needs are 50 out of 55 Republican votes, then President Bush could nominate Pat Robertson, John Ashcroft or anybody else he pleased to the U.S. Supreme Court, and easily get them confirmed.
Between The Lines: Elliot, what tools do the Democrats have in the minority there in the U.S. Senate at 45 seats? What can they do to forestall this plan if it actually is executed?
Elliot Minceberg: Well, the most important tool they have, we hope, is the tool of persuasion and public opinion. The polls that have been taken on this, the ones that have been taken honestly, showed that the majority of the American people are against this idea. And I think that Democrats in the Senate need to work even more at talking to their Rebublican brethren and persuading them that this is in fact a bad idea.
But one of the reasons that it's called the "nuclear option," is that this kind of incredible abolition by whim, in essence, of one of the fundamental Senate rules, is likely to literally blow up the Senate. Sen. Reid, the Democratic minority leader, has made clear that while he certainly doesn't want to do this, if the Republicans are going to go through with this, the result may be to in essence shut down the Senate for much of the business that it does, not key things like appropriations and defense legislation, but the sort of cooperation, frankly, that Democrats have provided so far on legislation -- some of which hasn't always gone the Democrats' way. Whether it's class action legislation or other kinds of issues, is frankly not going to continue.
And what Bill Frist has to do is to decide, does he want to exercise the "nuclear option" to satisfy the far right base of the Republican party -- which he hopes will support him for election for president in four years? Or, does he want to get the business of the Senate done by preserving the basic rules and following the rules rather than violating them in order to change them?
Contact People for the American Way by calling (202) 467-4999 or visit their website at http://www.pfaw.org.
Scott Harris is executive producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 35 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at http://www.btlonline.org. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending April 1, 2005. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Scott Harris and Anna Manzo.
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