Thursday, May 19, 2005

It's crunch time for the nuclear option.

Things are getting serious in the Senate.

And I mean serious.

There's an extremely high likelihood that the nuclear option will be pushed to a vote early next week (probably Monday or Tuesday).

The Washington Post has a good rundown of the sequence of events that we'll likely see here

A brief synopsis:
If all goes as planned, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) will rise after several days of debate beginning today over one of President Bush's judicial nominees and call for an end to Democrats' delaying tactics. The presiding officer will then rule in his favor.

Democrats will protest the ruling and ask for a vote to overturn it. The Republican leader will seek to table that appeal. If Frist and the GOP majority prevail, a long tradition of filibustering will be narrowed and a new precedent will be set allowing the Republicans to force a vote on a nomination with a simple majority instead of three-fifths of the Senate.


At 9:30 a.m. today, the Senate will begin debating Bush's nomination of Priscilla Richman Owen, an abortion opponent on the Texas Supreme Court who was nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, based in New Orleans.

Tomorrow or Friday, Frist and other Republican senators are likely to file a motion seeking cloture, or an end to debate. One session day must pass before a vote to end debate, so a vote would be held and Republicans would expect to get fewer than 60 votes to confirm Owen.

Frist aides say he has not decided exactly what would occur next. But the scenario most widely expected among senators in both parties is that he would seek a ruling from the chair -- Vice President Cheney, if it looked as if the vote was going to be close -- that filibustering judicial nominations is out of order. Assuming the chair agreed, Reid would then object and ask that the ruling of the chair be tabled. Most Republicans would then vote against the Democratic motion, upholding the ruling. Then the Senate would move to a vote on Owen, and a precedent will have been set that it takes 51 votes, not 60, to cut off debate on a judicial nomination.
This would set a new precedent in which the president's judicial nominees couldn't be filibustered by the minority party in the Senate. While that may seem like something that should only concern policy wonks, it could have very real implications for everyone's lives. It would allow the judiciary to become a direct pawn of any party that has both a simple majority in the Senate and occupies the White House. Even if the minority party had 49 votes in the Senate (or 50 if we're assuming an agreeable Vice President acting as the chamber's chair), the dominant party could put whoever they wanted on the bench without being forced to compromise with the other party. That opens the flood gates for any extremist jurist, particularly ones who have controversial positions on politically salient issues such as civil liberties, minority rights, reproductive choice, GLBTIQ issues, and so on. Something scares me about giving Bush free reign to put whoever he wants on the bench, especially since those positions are kept for life. The powerful nature of the judiciary mandates that it be a little more difficult than a simple majority to make someone a federal judge. The judiciary serves its function due to its alleged independence from popular political pressures. I realize that that's an ideal that's made impossible by the inevitable political considerations that function as background assumptions when judges render their decisions, but there are still different degrees of how the judiciary is influenced by the popularity politics of the legislative and executive branches. Allowing the Senate to be a mere rubberstamp for the President creates the real likelihood that political majorities will be able to rollback things like civil liberties.

Call, fax, or e-mail your Senators. I know most of them have already made up their minds, but this is an issue that will have far-reaching effects on the legitimacy of the judicial branch. Those changes have to potential to have an effect on your life some day. Lord knows that I don't want rubber stamped judges deciding on this administration's right to detain citizens and non-citizens alike in violation of habeus corpus.

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