A showdown over the filibuster of President Bush's judicial nominees is coming, but it isn't certain that Senate GOP leaders can break the Democratic blockade of seven men and women nominated to the appellate courts and pave the way for up-or-down votes on Supreme Court nominees.
The stakes went higher early this month as powerful spokesmen for the left fringe of the Democratic Party endorsed the use of the filibuster against future Supreme Court nominees and indicated specifically that they would urge filibusters against three highly respected appeals court judges-Michael Luttig, Michael McConnell, and John Roberts.
Ralph Neas of People for the American Way and Nan Aron of the Alliance for Justice wield so much power over Senate Democrats that their filibuster endorsement apparently signals Democratic intentions when President Bush nominates a successor to Chief Justice William Rehnquist, whose retirement is widely expected though not yet confirmed for early this summer.
The looming vote over the filibuster's application to appeals court judges thus has the added significance of setting the groundrules for that vacancy and any others that follow in the course of President Bush's second term. Conservatives who have long waited for an opportunity to see a Republican president balance out the two appointments Bill Clinton made-the very reliable liberal votes of Justices Ginsburg and Breyer-are certain to punish the party and particular senators if the GOP fails to muster the votes necessary to end the filibusters.
Begun in 2003, these filibusters were the first ever mounted against appeals court judges, and the first to be effective since the nomination of LBJ crony Abe Fortas to succeed retiring Chief Justice Earl Warren on Oct. 1, 1968. (That hardly serves as a "precedent," because a lame duck president was nominating an ethically challenged individual one month before a new president would be elected; Fortas would resign from his position as associate justice on the Court the following year.)
Seven GOP senators are thought to be wobbling on the crucial vote: Collins and Snowe of Maine, Chafee of Rhode Island, Sununu of New Hampshire, Warner of Virginia, McCain of Arizona, and Hagel of Nebraska. Outraged conservatives have been calling the Congressional switchboard-(202) 225-3121-or e-mailing the slipping seven with warnings of fallout if they defect from the party on this key vote. Sen. John Chafee, who is up for reelection in '06, could see contributions from conservatives go to his opponent, and Sens. Chuck Hagel and John McCain, both mulling presidential runs, could pack their bumper stickers away.
With the vote on filibustering coming soon, senators on the fence have very little time left for deciding how they will vote in what could be the most important senatorial showdown of Bush's second term.