Lines Drawn for 30-Hour Debate

Posted November 5, 2003 at 6:41pm

Break out the cots.

The battle lines have been drawn in the Senate for the chamber’s first all-night political brawl in more than a decade, with both sides spoiling for a fight next week over the judicial confirmation process.

Senate Republicans said that their so-called “30-hour plan” — at least 30 straight hours of uninterrupted debate on judges — is set to begin sometime Wednesday, probably late in the afternoon, and carry on until nearly midnight Thursday. They’re even holding out the option of going into the wee hours of the morning Friday if their troops are up for it.

Furious at what they consider to be a double-cross, Senate Democrats are ready to mount what senior aides are calling a “major counteroffensive” and are signing up their own Caucus members for floor duty throughout the marathon debate.

Democrats contend that they put forward a “good-faith effort” in agreeing to be in session next Monday and Tuesday, giving up the annual Veterans Day holiday in order to do more work on appropriations bills and other must-pass items before a hoped-for Nov. 21 adjournment.

After agreeing to votes on Veterans Day, senior Democratic aides said, it was only later that Republicans informed them that the schedule next week would include 30 straight hours of debate on judicial nominations, likely to be followed by cloture votes on two or three judges Friday.

Democrats contend the 30-hour plan is a “midweek political stunt” that will only eat into time in which they could tackle other items, aides said. Pointing to Congress’ other priorities, Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) scoffed at the debate on judges.

“They can’t be serious about adjourning,” Daschle said.

A senior GOP aide said Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) had only guaranteed that floor time would be taken up by appropriations into Wednesday’s session, asserting there was “no double-cross.”

“If they’re so fired up we’re gratified,” the aide said of the upcoming debate.

As they developed their plans for the judicial debate, Republicans weren’t sure how engaged the Democrats planned to be, and moved quickly to get all 51 Republicans to pledge to come to the floor and join in the debate, assuring their ability to carry on the fight all day and night. Speaking assignments have been doled out to some GOP Senators this week, while others are still awaiting their time slot.

“I think I’m the morning of the second day,” said Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), who said the toughest time slots — those in the early morning hours — have already been gobbled up.

Some junior Senators acknowledged their lack of seniority probably destined them for a late-night or early-morning slot.

“You take whatever they give you. I’m pretty low on seniority,” said Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), elected in 2000. “So I imagine it won’t be a great time.”

Some senior Senators have made clear they expect to be given preferential treatment.

“I’ve got a sick hand, a sick leg and a sick ear,” Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), 71, said. “I’m going to have to take the time that’s most comfortable for me.”

With Democrats now fully engaged in the fight, it’s unclear what the format will be. Republicans had been signing up their Senators for 30-minute and 60-minute speaking spots.

Originally, Democrats had laughed off the idea of 30 hours of debate, with Minority Whip Harry Reid (Nev.), the floor captain for Democrats, suggesting he wouldn’t need any wing-men to help bear the burden. “I think that will be so easy I won’t need any help,” Reid said.

But now Democrats are so furious about having given up Veterans Day so Republicans could orchestrate their 30-hour plan that they have their own sign-up sheet for speaking slots. Democratic aides plan on spending the next several days negotiating with Republican staff over the format of the process. Democratic speakers will try to rebut the GOP arguments about the four filibusters Democrats have so far mounted to block circuit court nominees from up-or-down votes, as well as orchestrate a broader theme about their belief that Republicans have “misplaced priorities” and are taking up valuable floor time on judges while a litany of pocket-book issues don’t get the same attention, aides said.

“If the American people really are listening in the middle of the night,” one senior aide said, “this is a message that will resonate a lot better.”

Republican aides pointed to members of the Judiciary Committee as the leaders of the charge and those who are likely to be speaking the longest. In the overnight hours, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), 48, a member of Judiciary, is expected to play a lead speaking role, as is Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), 54. Both Graham and Coleman were elected in 2002 and raised the issue of Democratic blockage of some high-profile judicial nominees as an example of what Republicans have labeled Democratic obstructionism.

The plan has been orchestrated by Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.), but aides said Frist has been on board with the scheme for some time.

The early portion of the debate is likely to focus on two nominees from California, Judge Carolyn Kuhl, nominated to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and Janice Rogers Brown, nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. One aide noted that the early phase of debate on Wednesday and into early Thursday morning would occur during drive time and prime time in California, possibly increasing chances that Golden State voters would hear or see the unusual debate.

Logistically, much of the overnight debate will appear like most business on the Senate floor, with only a few Senators present. At any given time Republicans must have two Senators on the floor, one to wield the gavel and the other to speak. Democrats, however, need only one Senator in the chamber, to speak or, more importantly, to object in the instance that a Republican speaker asks for unanimous consent to move to a vote on any of the contentious nominees.

The upcoming battle will be in essence a reverse filibuster compared to that made famous in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” In that case, “Senator Smith” was desperately trying to block legislation he believed would harm children in his home state.

In this case next week, the people pushing for a vote to happen, Republicans, will likely end up being the ones speaking the most.

Veteran aides on both sides of the aisle say the last time there was a legitimate all-night filibuster was in October 1992, when then-Sen. Al D’Amato (R-N.Y.) spoke for more than 14 hours, including singing show tunes, in an effort to block a tax bill that would have harmed one of the last companies producing old-fashioned typewriters, Smith Corona, which was based in New York.