Firebrands Seek Marathon Debate

Posted October 28, 2003 at 6:36pm

A group of Senate Republicans is rallying support within the GOP Conference behind a plan to devote at least 24 uninterrupted hours of floor time to challenging Democrats on their use of the filibuster on judicial nominations.

The strategy, tentatively dubbed the “30-Hour Plan,” is being pushed by a group of roughly eight Republicans who are urging their leadership to set aside the time over two days during the final weeks of this session to debate the merits of stalled judicial nominees, according to several GOP Senators.

If Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) acquiesces to the request, it would represent the most dramatic step Republicans have taken to date to highlight the filibuster blockade Democrats have used to impede votes on three Bush nominees. Republicans anticipate filibusters on at least three more pending nominations.

It would also be the closest the Senate has come in decades to a traditional around-the-clock filibuster popularized in films such as “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

Frist has yet to decide whether to support such a move, and backers of the plan have been asking colleagues to affirm their support for the idea and indicate their willingness to appear at any time, day or night, should there be a quorum call or other parliamentary move to force Senators to come to the floor.

The Republicans would also need around-the-clock speakers, and those roles would likely have to be filled by some of the younger members of their Conference, such as Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), who has been leading the charge for the 30-hour plan, according to several Senators.

Santorum, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, declined to talk about the specifics of ideas being considered to drive home the message of Democratic obstructionism. But he said leadership was talking about taking a much more aggressive approach in the session’s waning days, “something to draw attention” to minority filibusters.

“We’re contemplating doing that,” Santorum said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of Santorum’s backers, also declined to address the strategy, but added that he was hoping for a “block of time, a real focused effort” that would drive home the GOP message.

One GOP aide involved in the talks said Frist was generally supportive of the idea, but noted the biggest obstacle would be finding the floor time, given the fact that leaders are clinging to their hopes of adjourning by Nov. 7. The aide suggested that if the floor calendar doesn’t allow for the 30-hour plan — given the fact that 10 appropriations bills still require Bush’s signature and House-Senate conferences are still working on the $87 billion Iraq supplemental bill, energy legislation and Medicare prescription drug coverage — that the aggressive approach would be put in place next year.

“It’s a matter of time. It’s a matter of this year or next,” the aide said.

At least part of the motivation behind the proposed tactic is an attempt to show conservative activists that Senate Republicans are taking every step possible to win confirmation of President Bush’s judicial nominations. The issue has never been on the front burner with voters, according to GOP and Democratic pollsters, but Republicans contend that the issue has far more resonance with their base voters than they realized from even a year ago as Democratic “obstructionism” has become Topic A on conservative talk radio.

“They expect a response from those who are supporting President Bush’s nominees,” Graham said of the grassroots opponents of the filibuster.

Democrats have generally scoffed at any attempt by Republicans to stage late-night quorum calls or colloquies about judicial nominations as nothing more than theatrics. Democratic aides have also noted in the past that their side only needs to have one Senator on the floor at any given time in order to block unanimous consent requests to bring up a nominee for a vote, making their role in any all-night session much easier to execute.

“I’d love to have some debate, but it’s not going to change anything,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of the leading critics of Bush’s nominees. Schumer contended that Bush has not listened to Democratic complaints about nominees being out of the mainstream of legal thought.

“The solution is not talking more. The solution is coming to us and getting some comity around here,” he said.

Frist has faced previous requests from Santorum and other conservatives who want to push harder on the fight for Bush’s judicial nominees, particularly in February and March when the chamber handled the nomination of Miguel Estrada to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Frist never pulled an all-nighter, but several times he held late-night or early morning quorum calls, which were followed by lengthy debates that went into the early morning hours.

But the issue got little attention in the media as the drumbeat toward the war in Iraq consumed the public attention. While the situation in Iraq remains volatile today, an all-night session would likely generate more attention now.

“We need to point out their obstruction,” said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and an appropriations cardinal. Gregg, who is involved in negotiations on several other issues, said he supports Santorum’s 30-hour plan and believes there is plenty of time left to do something of that magnitude.

“One way to do it would be to set aside a couple days,” he said. “It’s something worth trying, so I hope we can take a run at it.”

The Democratic filibuster ultimately prompted Estrada to withdraw his nomination in September. Two other circuit court nominees, Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and Alabama Attorney General William Pryor to the 5th Circuit, are being filibustered by Democrats.

Republicans were expected to file a cloture motion on U.S. Judge Charles Pickering, nominated to the 5th Circuit, late Tuesday in order to hold a vote late Thursday. Democrats appear to have the votes to filibuster Pickering, and two more nominees, California Judge Carolyn Kuhl to the 9th Circuit and Janice Rogers Brown to the D.C. Circuit, will be on the floor in the coming weeks, and the GOP expects Democrats to filibuster those nominations as well.

One GOP Senator involved in the talks suggested that the request for 30 hours was a starting point in the negotiations, and that the more aggressive wing of the Conference would be satisfied with a lesser amount of time on the floor. But the Senator said 24 hours was probably their floor.

“It’ll be more than 12,” he said.