Monday, March 21, 2005

Advice from 'Across the Pond'

Today's New York Times features an op-ed from Iain Duncan Smith, who used to be the leader of the Conservative (aka Tory) Party in England. The Conservatives currently are the minority in Parliament, so they're in the same boat as the Democrats in our Congress. Duncan Smith gives some excellent advice to the Republicans in the Senate by offering an example from English political history that could repeat itself in just a few weeks here in America.

It looks increasingly possible that when Congress comes back from its Easter break, the Senate Republican leadership (Frist, Santorum & Co.) will attempt to bring one of Bush's contested judicial nominees up for a confirmation vote. In the past, Democrats have deployed the filibuster to keep these nominees (only ten of them, and all completely either unqualified or ridiculously inappropriate) from being confirmed. This is a completely legitimate delaying tactic, and even was used by Republicans in the Senate to block the nomination of Abe Fortas to the chief justice's chair in 1968 (today's Republicans seem to have forgotten that, probably because the nomination ended up derailing itself over other issues). But this time, Frist & Co. have said, if the Democrats try to filibuster, a point of order will be lodged against the attempt, and Vice President Cheney would make a ruling from the chair that filibusters of judicial nominees is in fact unconstitutional. There would then be a vote on that ruling, but it would take only 51 yes votes to uphold Cheney, and thereby end any further filibusters on judicial nominees (including future nominees to the Supreme Court).

Some question remains over whether Frist has 51 votes in favor of upholding Cheney's ruling, should it be made. Several Republicans, including Hagel and McCain (just yesterday on ABC's "This Week") have expressed reluctance to implement the so-called "nuclear option" and end judicial filibusters, giving various reasons for their reticence. Mostly these center around the likelihood that Democrats will completely shut down the Senate, which they absolutely have the capability of doing. The Senate generally operates under 'unanimous consent requests', meaning that everyone agrees to set times for debate, not to have the clerk read through every single bill/amendment/technical detail line by line, and so forth. If the Democrats wanted to, they could object to every single unanimous consent request, and force the Senate to a quick and immediate standstill. Now, I have some serious doubts about whether the current crop of Democrats would actually do that, since they seem to have a standard operating procedure of rolling over and playing dead instead of standing up and fighting when it comes right down to it, but they could really make things difficult for Frist & Co. to accomplish literally anything at all.

More importantly, and back to the point that Duncan Smith makes in his op-ed today (and as George Will, with whom I almost never agree, said yesterday), someday the Republicans are going to find themselves back in the minority. Duncan Smith's example derives from an 1887 decision by a Conservative government to allow the majority party to set limits on parliamentary debate in order to curb filibuster-style protests by minorities. For the past 118 years, the minority parties in Parliament have chafed under this 'guillotine rule' - and recently it's been the Conservatives (who originally backed the guillotine) who have come to revile it. The same, both he and Will suggest, could very well happen to the Republicans at some point down the line), and at that time the party will certainly regret have fired this irretrievable arrow from their tactical quiver.

There's still a glimmer of hope that a compromise of some kind might be worked out before the nuclear option is deployed. This is, clearly, the most desirable option for both sides, since the Democrats don't want to allow themselves to be painted with the "obstructionist" brush any more than they absolutely have to. If worst comes to worst, though, and the vote is called, it will come down to a few moderate Republican senators who will have to decide whether to buck their party in its long term interests, or support the current leadership in its push forward to what will surely be a Pyrrhic victory.


At 5:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A lot of the problems the neoconservatives have in Congress right now, at least in my opinion, is that they are not exactly thinking far ahead. They are thinking now. It will come back to bite them in the collective ass later. Moderates and, dare I say, intelligent conservatives in Congress do realize that they might some time (soon, I hope) find themselves in the minority again and will then regret it.

Here's hoping that moderation gets the better of the rest of the Republican party here, so that Frist and Santorum and the likes can't shut out fighting tactics that they themselves may need again some day.



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