Posted 10:11pm November 20
by Ilana Weinberg
U-WIRE Washington Bureau
After almost 40 hours of drawn out debate on the Senate floor, Democrats succeeded in maintaining their filibuster on three judicial nominees last Friday morning.
The political spectacle launched a Republican-sponsored protest against the Democratic efforts to block judicial nominations for the federal bench, but fell short of the 60 votes required to end the filibuster, gaining only 53.
The votes came Friday morning to prevent the appeals court nominations of Priscilla R. Owen of Texas, and Carolyn B. Kuhl and Janice Rogers of California. This is the fourth time Democrats have blocked Owen. Only two Democrats, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Zell Miller of Georgia, voted in favor of the nominations. Democrats have also blocked Alabama Attorney General William H. Pryor, Jr., U.S. District Judge Charles W. Pickering Sr. of Mississippi, and Washington lawyer Miguel A. Estrada, who withdrew his nomination. Democrats have approved 168 of President Bush’s judicial nominations.
The showdown, beginning at six on Wednesday night, appeared trite and bizarre to many. It was a filibuster to protest an attempted filibuster, or, as Senator Rick Santorum, R-Pa., proposed, a “reverse filibuster.”
A filibuster, in the conventional sense, is an attempt by a minority to prevent a Senate action by delaying it. This “reverse filibuster” was a stunt performed by the Republican majority to pressure the Democratic minority to surrender its threat of a filibuster against four of Bush’s judicial nominees. The debacle sent a clear message that the Senate is not properly equipped to handle partisan conflict efficiently.
“When there’s party conflict, which is inevitable, the institutional structures aren’t in place to moderate it. That’s a problem, particularly when you have a group of Republican Senators who still view it as their job to undo the Clinton legacy on the federal bench, and a group of Democratic Senators who have a strong dislike for President Bush,” said Dr. Lauren Bell, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Randolph-Macon College.
During the debate, Republicans argued that filibusters against judicial nominees are unconstitutional. Democrats responded by saying they had gone along with 168 of Bush’s nominees, but found that these four were too ideologically opinionated to receive lifetime appointments.
“We are not going to be a rubber stamp for right-wing ideological judges,” said Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., about an hour into the debate. Around midnight, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., responded “You get 168 and you don’t get four, and you’re whining and you’re crying.”
The outcome of the talk-athon came as no surprise to most. President Bush was nonetheless disappointed in the failure.
“At a time when the American people have important issues backlogged in the courts, partisan Senators are playing politics with the judicial process at the expense of timely justice for the American people,” said Bush in a statement to the press last Friday.
However, some argue that the goals of the outlandish political tactics were broader than simply gaining the votes for judicial nominees.
“If one were deeply cynical, they might posit that the Republican leadership was hoping not only to achieve confirmation victories, but also to score points with the party base and to galvanize their supporters against the Democrats. In that context, I think they were moderately successful,” said Bell.
At the start of the filibuster, Democratic supporters gathered at a rally to hear their Senators speak on urgent issues that Congress should be focusing its time on, such as job loss and education, as opposed to wasting the time on this political formality.
“The Democratic Senators’ compassion on this issue was invigorating. I felt proud to wave my anti-Bush sign,” said Courtney Foley, a student at George Washington University who attended the rally.
Organizers provided “Fili-Bingo” board games, and a mock children’s book titled “Republican Senators and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Night” to entertain the crowd of nearly 100 supporters.
“The Democrats were also able to energize and mobilize their supporters last week, and they showed that it is possible to defeat the Republicans by holding firm and working together,” said Bell.