Reid Threatens Senate Freeze

‘Nuclear’ Showdown Looming

Posted March 15, 2005 at 6:45pm

Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.) publicly threatened Tuesday to bring the chamber to a standstill on all non-national security issues if Republicans alter filibuster rules, accusing President Bush and Congressional Republicans of being “drunk with power.”

Convinced the GOP is set on invoking the so-called “nuclear option” on judicial nominations, Reid and three dozen of his Democratic colleagues took to the Senate steps to spell out their objections to the maneuver and accused the White House and Republicans of a power grab akin to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s attempt to pack the Supreme Court in the 1930s.

“It is clear that this attempt to strip away these important checks and balances is not about judges. It is about the desire for absolute power,” Reid charged.

Republicans reacted coolly to Reid’s rhetorical broadside, and several GOP Senators suggested, privately and publicly, that they now have secured the 50 votes needed to alter the rules and that Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) would likely make the move in mid-to-late April.

All Democrats — including Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who officially came out against changing filibuster rules Tuesday — oppose the nuclear option, but Republicans need just 50 votes to execute the move. Some moderates and “Old Bull” committee chairmen had been reluctant to back it, but momentum within the GOP Conference has clearly been building in favor of Frist for weeks now.

“I think we will be successful,” said Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), the Republican Conference chairman who has pushed this option for more than a year. “We will win.”

“They’ve left our people who would rather not do this with no other option,” said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who worked closely with Santorum and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) on whipping support for the change.

Lott, who has also been quietly working for weeks with Nelson to craft a compromise that would avert the judicial showdown, said Reid has been the biggest obstacle in efforts aimed at reaching a compromise, repeatedly rebuffing entreaties from Frist and other Republicans to broker a deal.

“He’s just getting nastier and nastier on us. He’s leaving us no option,” Lott said.

Reid’s decision to turn up the heat on the nomination issue was made after talks last week with GOP Senators, aides said. And his choice of words Tuesday marked a new thematic attempt at branding Republicans as broad abusers of their power.

“Presidents and parties have grown drunk with power before,” Reid said, citing the 1930s fight over the courts and an early 19th century Supreme Court showdown during the Jefferson administration.

“Today another attempt is being considered to rewrite the rules so that those in power can get their way,” Reid said.

The PowerPoint presentation Democrats viewed at their weekly Tuesday luncheon began with a tutorial on “Judges: Nuclear Option,” and then shifted to a page stating, “Our goal is to reframe the issue.”

One Democratic strategist said past fights on judicial nominees have been too procedurally based, with Democrats contending they confirmed most of Bush’s judges but Republicans countering that the 10 filibustered nominees represented a historical breach with past precedent. With Bush holding the presidential bully pulpit, Democrats feel he is most likely to win that fight.

Instead, a strategist said, Democrats hope to loop the fight over judges and filibusters into a widespread assault on Republican power, even linking it to how House GOP leaders have changed rules governing their ethics committee in a perceived effort to insulate House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) from corruption allegations. “It’s more and more of what you’re going to see,” the strategist said, requesting anonymity.

The threats of fallout if Frist pushes the “nuclear” button on judges were spelled out in a letter Reid sent to Frist Tuesday, declaring, “The Senate should not become like the House of Representatives, where the majority manipulates the rules to accommodate its momentary needs.”

Reid said that issues “vital to our troops or other national security interests” would be exempted from dilatory tactics by Democrats, as would those matters involving “critical government services.” Aides said that in general that meant that legislation dealing with military funding and homeland security, as well as anything coming up that could be a domestic emergency such as disaster relief, would be exempt from the delaying tactics.

Otherwise, the vast majority of other issues were covered by the Democratic threat of delay. This would most likely lead to Democrats refusing to allow unanimous consent requests so that amendments could be offered without a full reading, making for a lengthy process to get through any bill. Also, Democrats would be able to invoke the “two-hour rule,” which requires unanimous consent for committees to keep open a hearing after the chamber has been in session for two hours.

It’s unclear, however, whether such tactics would be implemented every single day, on every piece of non-security legislation, and in every committee. One aide suggested Tuesday the only way to drive home the point was to consistently employ the delaying tactics day after day. Another suggested it would be done on an “ad hoc” basis.

“It’s intentionally non-specific,” Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) said of the threat.

Republicans appeared ready for the fight, preparing to accuse Reid of irresponsibility blocking the Senate’s business.

“To shut down the Senate would be irresponsible and partisan,” Frist said in a statement.

Nelson, who had been wavering on whether he’d support the GOP move to end filibusters, said Tuesday he is now firmly opposed because it is only a temporary fix that leaves open the possibility that Republicans would switch the rules back if there were a Democratic administration in the future. “I support a permanent solution, not a political fix,” he said.

Lott and Nelson have met about six times recently, according to aides, to discuss a proposal to end the standoff. Lott has a one-page, three-paragraph draft of his proposed compromise he carries in his coat pocket.

The basic framework calls for an up-or-down vote on all judicial nominees, which meets the current GOP demand. In exchange, Republicans would admit their role in denying a vote to 60 Clinton administration nominees by delay tactics in the Judiciary Committee — setting up a certain time frame in which the panel must consider each nominee.

His proposal would also have guaranteed a lengthy debate on the nominee, Lott added.

The deal could be crafted as an actual chamber rule change or as a simple colloquy, but Lott said it would only work if both leaders sit down and agree to the principles. “In the end, it has to be between Harry and Bill,” he said.