Column: Nuclear winter comes to the Senate

Imagine this: a bleak, inhospitable landscape, once a fertile place for growth and development, is now nothing more than scorched earth. Whatever life remains is twisted and bent on the total destruction of what’s left of the environment. The future, if it can be called that, is absolutely depressing.

What is it? A war zone in a third world country? Some foreign planetary body?

Try the United States Senate if some in the Republican leadership get their way and the so-called “nuclear option” is deployed.

The nuclear option refers to a little known procedural ploy in the Senate. In it, a member would challenge a filibuster, the minority party’s ability to keep an issue from coming to vote by prolonging debate, when used in connection with judicial nominees. The Senate’s presiding officer, the vice president, would then uphold the member’s challenge, and the filibuster would end after fifty votes, along with the veep’s tiebreaker, were cast.

While the move itself sounds harmless, the real danger would be in the Democratic response. If the Democrats lose the right to filibuster judicial nominees, they could bring the Senate to an absolute standstill. Work, in all forms, would grind to a halt through a variety of procedural methods, like refusing to sign off on any congratulatory-esque bills with unanimous consent and using the traditional filibuster to its fullest extent.

Customarily, the Senate has been a lawmaking body of compromise and deliberate thought. Therefore, minority parties and even smaller coalitions of senators have always had the power to assist or impede Senate function. If the nuclear option were successfully implemented, and the Democrats lose the right to prevent judicial nominees from coming to the floor, they would still have a great deal of power – and all of their options would be on the table.

The net effect? A Senate that can do nothing.

Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has been brandishing this senatorial WMD in hopes of ending the filibuster on President Bush’s judicial nominees, seven of whom he just re-nominated. “I believe that we need to restore the over 200-year tradition and precedent of allowing every nominee of the president who has majority support an up or down vote on the floor of the United States Senate,” said the doctor-turned-congressman in a Feb. 9 interview with The Washington Times. In the same interview, Frist also said that he had the votes to turn his plan into reality.

If nuclear deployment in the Senate?

As the Senate currently stands, there are 55 Republicans, 44 Democrats and one independent who caucuses with the Dems. So Frist could lose the support of five GOP colleagues and his plan would still go through. According to a Feb. 16 article in CQ Today, Sens. Olympia J. Snowe and Lincoln Chafee, both Republicans, are firmly against the measure, and maverick John McCain is “leaning against it.” GOP senators Susan Collins, Gordon Smith, John Warner, Chuck Hagel and George Voinovich are all undecided.

If Frist is able to marshal the rest of his forces, he would need only to convince three of the undecided senators. After that, it would be only a matter of time and his ultimate decision to push the button.

And that’s the real question here. Would Frist and the rest of the GOP leadership dare take the risk of shutting down the Senate for the rest of this year? Or is this just scare tactics and posturing, like the mutually assured destruction policy of the US and the USSR during the Cold War?

It could very well be just an attempt to scare the Democrats into action. With Frist willing to use the nuclear option, wavering Dems – especially those who are up for reelection in 2006 – might think twice about filibustering when Bill Pryor or Priscilla Owen come up again for confirmation. For Frist, this last resort may be just a deterrent, which would also explain the media buzz surrounding it. After all, it’s not a deterrent if no one knows about it.

Then again, maybe Frist isn’t bluffing. Maybe, just maybe, he’s willing to defy 200 years of precedent to suit a piddling political agenda. Maybe he’s willing to trample over the minority rights upon which this country was founded. Maybe he’s willing to go down in history as one of the more infamous political leaders of recent history.

Just keep this in mind, dear doctor. If you push this button, if you decide to run roughshod over one of this country’s hallowed institutions, the blood will be on your hands.

-The writer, a sophomore at the University of Alabama, is a participant in the Semester in Washington program.

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