Senate Rules Battle Moves to Floor

Posted June 24, 2003 at 6:38pm

The Senate took its first major step toward rewriting its rules regarding nominations Tuesday when the Rules and Administration Committee approved legislation that would require a person to receive only 51 votes to be approved by the chamber.

All 10 Republicans on the panel voted in favor of the resolution, a largely symbolic victory for the GOP on a controversial issue that will be soon be addressed on a much larger battlefield: the Senate floor. No Democrats were present for the vote, and several of the panel’s minority members denied they intentionally boycotted the hearing as a way to express opposition to the proposal.

Still, the Democrats predicted Republican leaders would not be able to muster up the 67 votes needed on the floor to approve such a sweeping rules change.

“It will never get 67 votes,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), an outspoken critic of the proposal.

Schumer warned that if another alternative under consideration by GOP leaders was triggered — allowing the presiding officer to rule a Democratic filibuster of a nominee out of order — it would result in a meltdown in the Senate. Under this scenario some Republicans envision having Vice President Cheney sitting in the chair and ruling that filibusters of nominees are unconstitutional. It is commonly referred to in the Senate as the “nuclear option.”

“There was some talk, which I hope they are backing off from, which would just bring Cheney into the chair and have him rule and that has never happened in the Senate,” Schumer said. “That would be a dagger at the heart of what the Senate is all about, and Democrats would take very strong actions.”

Schumer is referring to the oft-repeated threat by Democrats to bring the Senate’s business to a screeching halt through the use of parliamentary maneuvering if Republicans try to muscle this rules change through the chamber.

Despite the threats, Republicans are not backing down, and Rules Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said he favors the “nuclear option” if the resolution fails to garner the 67 votes needed for passage.

“I am an advocate of that,” said Lott, who added that it is his belief that only 51 votes are needed to confirm a nominee. “The Democrats are going to stop this or we are going to have to go nuclear.”

Republicans are advocating the rules change to break the stranglehold Democrats have had on President Bush’s judicial picks. Democrats have successfully prevented two of the president’s circuit court nominees from being approved this year through the use of filibusters. And Democrats are likely to filibuster at least two more nominees in the coming months. GOP leaders are also eager to try to amend the Senate rules to help them usher through a new Supreme Court nominee, should a sitting justice retire this year.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said he has not made a decision about when the resolution will be debated on the floor. But he chastised Democrats for their filibuster strategy.

“To deny Senators the opportunity to vote up or down on presidential nominees I believe is inconsistent with the advise and consent clause of the Constitution,” Frist said.

Should he fail to attract the 67 votes needed to make the rules change, the Tennessee Republican would not rule out using the nuclear option.

“I will of course keep all options on the table,” Frist said. “It is unfair to … each United States Senator to deny them the right of an up or down vote on a presidential nominee. It is unfair to the American people. It is unfair to our judicial system.”

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) criticized the GOP for considering this option.

“It is a very irresponsible and dangerous path to take, and I would hope that they would recognize the precarious circumstances under which that would be offered, and would decide not to,” Daschle said.

Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), a leading centrist who often works with Republicans, also cautioned GOP leaders not to invoke the nuclear option.

“That would create grave chaos and disrupt the Senate for years in the future and create an atmosphere that would be intolerable,” he said. “That is not what the Senate is all about.”

In addition to passing the rules change resolution, the Rules Committee also passed two other measures: putting the Homeland Security Cabinet secretary in the presidential line of succession; and instructing Senators and staff not to remove art or historical objects from the Capitol.

Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), the author of the resolution that puts the Homeland Security director eighth in line of presidential succession, said he is “hopeful” it will pass this year but realizes there are other proposals addressing the matter being considered.

“It’s a very simple resolution,” DeWine said. “It is something frankly that should have been probably done when we created the department.”

Regarding the art measure, Lott said it is important the Senate works to preserve its history and artifacts and noted the resolution authored by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) is a major step in doing so. Although the resolution does not spell out any penalties for taking a historic object such as a desk out of the Capitol, Lott said people likely would be prosecuted for stealing.

“If you took the desk out, theoretically that could be considered theft,” Lott said. “We would prefer not to deal with it that way.”

As Rules chairman, Lott said he would also pursue ways of upgrading current Senate artwork and furniture — which he calls “early junk, not antiques” — because former Members have bought or absconded with most of the valuable historic furnishings in their offices.

“I’m embarrassed about the quality of the stuff we have,” said Lott, who hopes to obtain new art and furniture through donations.

Lott also said he would attempt to reinstate an annual inventory of office furniture and have Members sign papers acknowledging receipt of certain items, so they can be more easily tracked and found.

Emily Pierce contributed to this report.