Congressional Game of Chicken: Filibuster Reform Discussed Again

(2 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Cross posted from The Stars Hollow Gazette

The side show over filibuster and Republican obstruction of President Barack Obama’s appointments to cabinet positions and to vacant seats on the bench, especially to the DC Circuit which hears some of the most important constitutional cases, has once again begun amidst the main event of the failure the roll out of the ACA. Senate Republicans filibustered a judicial nomination to the DC Circuit Court

President Obama’s latest choice to fill one of the vacancies on a powerful appeals court went down in a filibuster on Tuesday as Senate Republicans blocked another White House nominee – the third in two weeks – and deepened a growing conflict with Democrats over presidential appointments.

By a vote of 56 to 41, the nomination of Cornelia T. L. Pillard, a Georgetown law professor, fell short of clearing the necessary 60-vote threshold. [..]

The disagreements carried over onto the Senate floor on Tuesday, as Democrats accused Republicans of blocking a perfectly qualified woman for political purposes, while Republicans said Democrats were desperately looking for a wedge issue.

Looming underneath their disagreements about Ms. Pillard is the likelihood – which appeared to grow considerably on Tuesday – that the fight will escalate and result in a change to the Senate rules to limit the minority party’s ability to filibuster judicial nominees.

Senator Richard J. Durbin, the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat, warned Republicans that they were pushing the Senate dangerously close to a tipping point.

The Republicans attempt to reframe the argument saying that the DC Circuit isn’t as busy as other courts such as the 2nd Circuit in New York. The court handles most of the legal challenges to federal agencies, putting it at the center of fights over regulations – including the healthcare reform law and Obama’s push to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. After Tuesday’s vote, Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) said, “We’re going by the standards that Democrats set in 2006.”

Their strategy: lock in the current 4-4 court by eliminating the empty seats and redistributing them to other circuits, because some other courts (ones that aren’t the first recourse for people suing Congress over legislation) have more cases. “In 2012, there were 512 ‘administrative appeals’ filed in D.C.,” said Grassley on Tuesday. “In the 2nd Circuit, there were 1,493. Stated differently, in D.C. there were only 64 administrative appeals per active judge. The 2nd Circuit has nearly twice as many with 115.”

That framing, which seemed like a stretch-no one also denies that the D.C. Circuit gets more pivotal cases than the 2nd Circuit-has since been universally adopted by the right. Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, the sort of Republican whom Democrats like to cut deals with, has endorsed Grassley’s Court Efficiency Act because it would “bring a reasonable end to the destructive partisan fights to which both parties have contributed.” A third-party ad hitting Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor (a Gang of 14 member) right now accuses him of trying to “pack a key court with liberal judges” because he doesn’t want to eliminate the three open seats. Grassley points out that Democrats blocked a 2006 Bush nominee on the grounds that the seat didn’t need to be filled-what more evidence does he need?

“We’re going by the standards that Democrats set in 2006,” said Grassley after Tuesday’s vote. “They said that we didn’t need any more judges. And that’s exactly what I’m telling ’em, what they said! We’re just doing what they said. They set the standard and they can’t say we’re doing this because we’ve got a Democratic president, because I got a judge removed, the 12th one removed, when we had a Republican president.””

The problem with Grassley’s argument is that in 2006, the Republican’s got what they wanted. By threatening the “nuclear option,” the Democrats backed down and three very conservative, ideologues were appointed to the DC circuit. Funny how the Republicans can now support that which they opposed seven years ago.

Support for filibuster reform picked up a new supporter after the vote, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT).

“If the Republican caucus continues to abuse the filibuster rule and obstruct the president’s fine nominees to the D.C. Circuit, then I believe … a rules change should be in order,” Leahy said on the Senate floor, just before Republicans blocked Nina Pillard’s confirmation to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“That is not a change that I’ve wanted to see happen,” he continued. “But if Republican senators are going to hold nominees hostage without consideration of a nominee’s individual merits, drastic measures may be warranted.”

Leahy, laughing at the Republican excuse that each judge costs $1 million per year, stated the Republican government shut down cost billions of dollars that would have funded those appointments for years.

Contributing editor at the National Journal and resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Norm Ornstein laid out his reasons why it was time to stop the filibuster madness

Mel Watt was nominated by President Obama to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency-and was blocked by a Republican filibuster. The rationale that Watt was not qualified for the position was flimsy at best. If individual senators wanted to vote against him, they certainly have the right to do so on any basis. But to deny the president his choice for this post, a veteran and moderate lawmaker with sterling credentials and moral character, via filibuster, is nothing short of outrageous. Only two Republicans in the Senate, Rob Portman and Richard Burr, Watt’s colleague from North Carolina, voted for cloture.

Watt was not the only victim of a drive-by filibuster; so was Patricia Millett, a superbly qualified and mainstream nominee for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Only two Republicans supported cloture here; Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, and three others voted “present” (which was no help, since anything but a vote for cloture is meaningless with a rule requiring 60 votes, period, to end debate). The rationale here was even more flimsy than that used against Watt, namely that Obama is trying to “pack” the D.C. Circuit. FDR tried to “pack” the Supreme Court by adding seats to the existing Court. Barack Obama is moving to fill long-standing vacancies on the D.C. Circuit. On this Circuit, thanks to a slew of retired judges appointed by presidents long gone, conservatives have an edge that Mitch McConnell is determined to keep no matter what.

When Harry Reid and McConnell reached a deal on filibusters in January, it was clear that a key component of that deal was that Republicans in the Senate would give due deference to a newly reelected president in his executive nominations, and would only oppose judicial nominations for courts of appeals under “extraordinary circumstances,” which clearly means judges without clear qualifications or experience, or extreme ideologies. No one could accuse Millett of either of those characteristics. This is all about denying a president the right to pick judges to fill existing vacancies. Two more nominees for the D.C. Circuit are coming up soon, the real test of whether Republicans will continue to flout the January agreement and threaten fundamental comity in the Senate. [..]

If the other two D.C. Circuit nominees are filibustered and blocked, I would support Harry Reid’s move to change the rules now, to move from a 60-vote requirement to stop debate and vote to a 40-vote requirement to continue debate. The argument that if he does so, Republicans will do the same thing when they take the White House and Senate is a bad one: Can anyone doubt that McConnell would blow up the filibuster rule in a nanosecond if he had the ability to fill all courts with radical conservatives like Janice Rogers Brown for decades to come? I hope it does not come to this-and that the problem solvers in the Senate keep their titles, preserve their institution, and stop the filibuster madness.

But does Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have the votes? Even with Leahy’s support this time, there may not be the 51 votes needed.

“If we can’t move ahead based on how the procedures have been perverted, we need to fix the procedures. That’s the deal,” said Larry Cohen, president of Communications Workers of America, which is leading a coalition lobbying for changes to filibuster rules.

Cohen said Reid “is willing” to change the rules but “the question is whether the leader can get 50 Democrats, not 49 or 48, to sustain that motion.”

A senior Democratic aide said Reid has not conducted a recent whip count and questioned how outside groups or rank-and-file Democratic senators would know the vote count if the leader attempted a rule change immediately.

“Any declarative statements at this point are extremely premature,” said the senior aide.

A cloture vote on the nomination on Robert Wilkins, a third nominee to the court, will be held in the near future. The Republicans have already indicated that his  nomination will also be filibustered. We’ll see if reform of this antiquated, misused rule gains more support after that.  

1 comment

  1. TMC

Leave a Reply