GOP Gambit Questioned

Judges Trumped Warming Bill

Posted June 6, 2008 at 6:27pm

With Senate Democrats tied in knots over a major global warming bill last week, several Senate Republicans said their leadership made a tactical mistake by needlessly complicating the debate with an unrelated fight over judicial nominations.

Republicans appeared to be gaining traction with their argument that the massive climate change bill would raise already high gas prices. But then Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) decided on Wednesday to stall action on the measure by forcing the Senate clerk to read the nearly 500-page bill aloud for almost 10 hours.

He explained the move was retaliation for the lack of progress Senate Democrats had made in their pledge to move forward with several circuit court nominations. In response, Democrats said Republican “obstructionism” forced them to shut down debate on the measure.

One senior Senate Republican aide said some Senators felt McConnell had squandered a public relations opportunity to skewer Democrats. “It muddies the waters when Republicans are clearly winning,” the aide said.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) acknowledged the discontent.

“I think there were some who felt we were showing some momentum on the bill, and that [maneuver] sidetracked us a bit,” he said. “But we couldn’t just let the broken promise on judges stand.”

Another GOP Senator agreed: “There was a little bit of, ‘This is a good message for us and we want to play this out.’ … People thought this was a winner, but I’m not sure we had a lot of options” on judicial nominations.

McConnell defended his decision to erect procedural barriers to force Democrats to move circuit court nominees, saying a one-day debate about judicial appointments should not have derailed what he believed should have been a weeks-long debate on the climate change measure.

“It’s not muddy. Everybody knew exactly what we were doing and why,” he said. “If you were serious about legislating, this wouldn’t be over in one week anyway. One day would not have seriously interfered with the kinds of consideration that ought to be given to a bill of this magnitude anyway.”

The disagreement with McConnell was muted because many Republicans were sympathetic to his situation, given that conservatives have been agitating for the leader to draw the line on what they contend is the Democrats’ slow-walking of judicial confirmations this year.

“He’s got to make this point about judges, and there are just so few hostages to take,” said the GOP Senator. “It’s a difficult position to be in as a leader.”

Cornyn agreed that “it was a judgment call.”

Senate Democrats crowed that Republicans had given them the perfect excuse to end debate, and that McConnell’s move helped obscure the infighting in the Democratic Conference over how to proceed with the measure.

“The only people dumber than Democrats are Republicans,” said one senior Senate Democratic aide. “Republicans totally had us over a barrel and instead of taking advantage of it, they decided to bring up a politically obscure argument over judges instead of beating us over the head about gas prices. … I do think Republicans saved us from ourselves.”

Indeed, many Democrats were unhappy with the timing of the debate on global warming in the face of rising gas prices and the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office estimating the Democratic bill would raise gas prices 53 cents a gallon over 20 years.

Republicans seized on those facts and argued — with some success — gas prices would soar even higher under government mandates to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Once the debate turned to judges and the GOP’s hardball approach, Republicans might have helped to unify Democrats who were turning on each other during the debate, the senior Senate Democratic aide said.

Democratic leaders initially expected fewer than 45 Senators — six less than a majority — to back the motion to end debate, or invoke cloture, on the bill, which needed 60 to prevail. But on the Friday cloture vote, 48 Senators, Democrats and Republicans, voted for it. Absent Senators who would have voted for the bill would have brought the total to 54, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee announced last week.

“It was the gift that keeps on giving,” said one Senate Democratic leadership aide.

Although Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will attempt this week to move to a bill that aims to deal directly with gas prices, the judicial standoff continues. Republicans contend that Reid did not make good on a promise to bring three circuit court nominees to the floor before Memorial Day.

Reid has argued that he tried to do just that, but Republicans blocked two of those nominees. GOP Senators have countered that those two picks were being rushed through the process and had not yet been vetted by the American Bar Association or the FBI.

McConnell has vowed to hold up Senate action in other ways if he does not see movement on judicial nominations, and he already made good on that Thursday by using an arcane rule that allows the minority to object to committee meetings while the Senate is in session.