Various reports indicate that Frist will be bringing the controversial re-nominations of Brown and/or Owen to the full Senate tomorrow, at which point the Senate debate on these judges will begin. The question then becomes when, and how, the debate will end. Frist has indicated that he will, in fact, seek to overrule the Senate Parliamentarian and force the nominations through the Senate by ignoring both
the rules on Senate debate
the rules for changing Senate rules; the nuclear option
, as it has come to be known.
Via TAPPED, this May 4th column by the AEI's Norman Ornstein is remarkably good in laying out what, precisely, makes the "nuclear option" so nuclear. It's worth referring to again:
Let us put aside for now the puerile arguments over whether judicial filibusters are unprecedented: They clearly, flatly, are not. Instead, let's look at the means used to achieve the goal of altering Senate procedures to block filibusters on judicial nominations.
Without getting into the parliamentary minutiae--the options are dizzying, including whether points of order are "nested"--one reality is clear. To get to a point where the Senate decides by majority that judicial filibusters are dilatory and/or unconstitutional, the Senate will have to do something it has never done before.
Richard Beth of the Congressional Research Service, in a detailed report on the options for changing Senate procedures, refers to it with typical understatement as "an extraordinary proceeding at variance with established procedure."
To make this happen, the Senate will have to get around the clear rules and precedents, set and regularly reaffirmed over 200 years, that allow debate on questions of constitutional interpretation--debate which itself can be filibustered. It will have to do this in a peremptory fashion, ignoring or overruling the Parliamentarian. And it will establish, beyond question, a new precedent. Namely, that whatever the Senate rules say -- regardless of the view held since the Senate's beginnings that it is a continuing body with continuing rules and precedents -- they can be ignored or reversed at any given moment on the whim of the current majority.
There have been times in the past when Senate leaders and presidents have been frustrated by inaction in the Senate and have contemplated action like this. Each time, the leaders and presidents drew back from the precipice. They knew that the short-term gain of breaking minority obstruction would come at the price of enormous long-term damage -- turning a deliberative process into something akin to government by the Queen of Hearts in "Alice in Wonderland."
Rule XXII is clear about extended debate and cloture requirements, both for changing Senate rules (two-thirds required) and any other action by the Senate, nominations or legislation (60 Senators required). Ignored in this argument has been Senate Rule XXXI, which makes clear that there is neither guarantee nor expectation that nominations made by the president get an up-or-down vote, or indeed any action at all.
It reads: "Nominations neither confirmed nor rejected during the session at which they are made shall not be acted upon at any succeeding session without being again made to the Senate by the President; and if the Senate shall adjourn or take a recess for more than thirty days, all nominations pending and not finally acted upon at the time of taking such adjournment or recess shall be returned by the Secretary to the President, and shall not again be considered unless they shall again be made to the Senate by the President."
By invoking their self-described nuclear option without changing the rules, a Senate majority will effectively erase them. A new precedent will be in order--one making it easy and tempting to erase future filibusters on executive nominations and bills. Make no mistake about that.
This has long ago ceased to be about the merits of a handful of (ironically activist) judges. As has been amply demonstrated elsewhere, Republicans were brutal in holding up Clinton nominations in recent years based on the whims of even a single Republican Senator. Their current bluster and outrage is simply manufactured.
The rules of the Senate will be purposefully and deliberately broken, because ninety-five percent compliance with the President, and with the allied James Dobsons of the world, is not good enough. Frist requires Democrats to countenance any action the President wishes; in a choice between the institutions of this country and the wishes of his President, Frist has already made his choice. We shall see who follows.
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