Judiciary: Partisans Welcome

Posted February 11, 2009 at 6:44pm

Despite talk of a new era of bipartisanship, there’s one place in Washington where partisans can still get their fill of angry diatribes, recriminations and denunciations — the Senate Judiciary Committee.

But despite the often fervent attacks each side launches, the committee has continued to function relatively smoothly, and members said the divisive nature of their work has not corroded their relationships.

Most members of the panel do not deny there’s a healthy amount of partisanship involved in their work, and in some cases, some even seem to relish it. “Partisanship? On the Judiciary Committee? I’m shocked that you would suggest that,” quipped Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).

Likewise, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) also feigned surprise, exclaiming, “You don’t say!”

Cornyn and others point to the fact that both parties have stacked the Judiciary Committee with lawmakers who, while shrewd legislators, also are renowned partisans, particularly those hailing from leadership ranks.

Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) both serve on the panel, as does Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.).

Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), while adept at cutting deals, also has been a reliably partisan voice during his time in the Senate. Other panel members, such as Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), each represent various factions of their parties’ wings.

Many Judiciary Committee Senators said much of the panel’s reputed partisanship is hard-wired because of its jurisdiction over hot-button social issues and the federal bench. Those issues tend to ignite passions from both parties and spark the fiercest debates both in and outside the Capitol.

“Whether it’s immigration or judges or the war on terror, a lot of them do boil down to legal questions. The committee’s jurisdiction is right smack dab in the middle of that,” Cornyn said. “I have noticed that it seems to be the committee that divides us most.”

Whitehouse agreed, noting that issues such as abortion, judicial nominations and the separation of church and state divide Americans as a whole — a tension that is reflected on the committee. Whitehouse also noted that both parties have long used the Judiciary panel as a place to breed and promote “wedge issues” — such as gay marriage bans, flag-burning amendments to the Constitution or other incendiary, “red meat” proposals.

“It is partly the nature of the issues [and] also partly the tradition that it has been used to try and create and drive wedge issues,” Whitehouse said.

But while Senators on the committee are able to throw bombs with the best of them, they also are among the most skilled at working through compromises on some of the nation’s most vexing problems.

Cornyn explained that despite the hard lines Judiciary Senators often draw, they can set them aside, work together and legislate, calling it “a matter of mutual respect.”

Judiciary ranking member Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) agreed, saying that beginning when he served as chairman and continuing to today’s leadership under Leahy, committee members have found ways to speak their partisan minds while also advancing major legislation and key presidential nominations.

“I’m going to work at it to try and work around wedge issues so folks can express themselves” while still seeking compromise on issues, Specter said.

For instance, Kyl, Leahy, Specter and former committee member Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) were at the center of efforts to craft bipartisan immigration reform in the 110th Congress. Similarly, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), no stranger to partisan warfare, has been one of the biggest backers of President Barack Obama’s executive branch nominees, coming out early in support of Attorney General Eric Holder when other members of his party were looking to pick a fight.

Indeed, Specter and other panel members said despite the routine fireworks, Judiciary’s past work on the USA PATRIOT Act, immigration reform and nominations such as Chief Justice John Roberts bode well for the future.

During the 2005 and 2006 confirmations of Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, while Democrats launched attacks against the nominees and the Bush White House, “even the partisans like Schumer were praising what I was doing as fair,” Specter said.

Similarly, Specter noted that while last month’s nomination hearing on Holder featured its fair share of committee infighting, in the end most Republicans backed Obama’s choice. “If you look at the final vote on Holder, you only had two votes against him. Holding 6-to-2 is a pretty good showing,” Specter said, explaining that “people were satisfied with the vigorous examination we had of Holder.”

Even Cornyn, who voted against Holder, acknowledged the process went well and said that despite their public bickering, Specter and Leahy have a strong friendship that helps guide the panel. “For the chairman and ranking member, it’s important that they have a good working relationship,” he said, adding that the relationship is “much better than it appears to be” during hearings.

Leahy said that while committee members often have significant philosophical differences, they also have repeatedly found areas on which to work together. For instance, while Leahy and Hatch “usually are a million miles away philosophically … we joined together on a number of things,” including patent reform.

In another instance, Leahy teamed up with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) this week to introduce fraud legislation, and Leahy allowed Grassley to give the opening remarks in order to accommodate his schedule. “Some of us are old-timers in terms of service and understand” the ins and outs of Senate etiquette, Leahy said.

Ultimately Leahy said he is proud of the work the committee has done and the ability of its members to find common ground despite their deep philosophical differences. “We do move a hell of a lot of stuff,” he said.