With a Valentine's Day announcement that he has the 51 votes needed to change the U.S. Senate to permit up-or-down votes on judicial nominees, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is showing Democrats that their experiment in extra-constitutional obstruction is over. If Democrats filibuster a judicial nominee, as they did repeatedly throughout President Bush's first term, Sen. Frist will seek a ruling from the Chair that judicial nominees cannot be filibustered-and a majority of the Senate will uphold that favorable ruling.
Why does the majority leader of 55 Republicans announce a certainty of only 51 votes? Some speculate that several Republican members fear abandoning a power they might find useful in far-off decades, or fear political fallout from the vote. Others speculate that "moderate" members of the GOP caucus are sympathetic to Democratic concerns that President Bush wants to appoint judges who are too conservative, or whose "deeply held views"-read sincere religious faith-may lead them toward robust defense of the Free Exercise Clause or other flash points in the ongoing cultural battles played out before the nation's federal courts.
The "soft" GOP senators probably include the two from Maine-Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe-and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island. Others speculate that Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and John McCain of Arizona are unreliable votes on this matter, though a vote against nomination process reform would kill their presidential hopes, since the GOP base cares deeply about this issue. Some speculate that Judiciary Committee Chair Arlen Specter might also defect, which would hurt the Pennsylvanian who wants to chair for the next six years the influential committee he fought so hard to lead.
When the vote comes the suspense will end, but the surprises might begin. Since newly elected Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) promised his voters that he believed every nominee should get a vote, a vote against filibuster reform would strike many as a double cross right out of the box. Democratic incumbents in Red States like Florida (Bill Nelson), New Mexico (Jeff Bingaman), Nebraska (Ben Nelson), and North Dakota (Kent Conrad) will have to measure loyalty to the filibuster against their own reelection desires. Many voters increasingly see the judicial filibuster as a transparent weapon of extremism wielded by Vermont's Patrick Leahy, Massachusetts' Ted Kennedy, California's Barbara Boxer, and other members of the Senate's ideological far left.
Growing support for a showdown on the filibuster must also attract Sen. Frist, who may want to succeed President Bush in the White House. With other potential nominees already well-known and defined by events or campaigns past-men like Sen. McCain and Rudy Giuliani-the majority leader would no doubt welcome the chance to walk around Iowa with victory over the filibuster as his opening line in many living rooms and coffee shops.
Earlier this month President Bush renominated many of last session's filibuster victims. For most of the Republican Party, the showdown over their futures cannot come quickly enough.