Mr. Smith Goes Under the Gavel
Republicans control the White House, both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court. But the greater their power, the more they have focused on one of its few limits: the Senate filibuster. They are so concerned that Democrats will use the filibuster to block a few far-right judicial nominees that they are talking about ending one of the best-known checks and balances in government. Rather than rewrite the rules of government for a power grab, Republicans should look for ways to work with Democrats, who still represent nearly half the country.
The filibuster is almost as old as America itself. In 1790, senators filibustered to prevent Philadelphia from becoming the nation's permanent capital. In the centuries since, senators have used their privilege of unlimited debate to fend off actions supported by a bare majority of the Senate, but deeply offensive to the minority. In 1917, the Senate adopted a formal resolution allowing senators to delay actions unless debate is cut off by a supermajority, which Senate rules now set at 60 votes.
Now that Republicans are doing the appointing, they see things very differently. Dr. Frist recently declared on "Fox News Sunday" that preventing votes on judicial nominees is "intolerable." Among the proposals Republicans are floating is the so-called nuclear option. According to Senate rules, changing the filibuster rule should require a two-thirds vote. But in the "nuclear option," Vice President Dick Cheney, as Senate president, would rule that filibusters of judicial nominees could be ended by a simple majority.
That would no doubt put the whole matter in the courts, an odd place for the Republicans - who are fighting this battle in the name of ending activist courts - to want it resolved. The Republicans would have a weak case. The Constitution expressly authorizes the Senate to "determine the rules of its proceedings." That is precisely what it has done.
If it came to a vote, it is not at all clear that the Republicans would be able to command even a majority for ending the filibuster. Senators appreciate their chamber's special role, and much of its uniqueness is based on traditions like the filibuster. Senator Charles Schumer, the New York Democrat who has led the opposition to extremist judicial nominees, says as many as 10 Republican senators could vote against changing the rule.
The Republicans see the filibuster as an annoying obstacle. But it is actually one of the checks and balances that the founders, who worried greatly about concentration of power, built into our system of government. It is also, right now, the main means by which the 48 percent of Americans who voted for John Kerry can influence federal policy. People who call themselves conservatives should find a way of achieving their goals without declaring war on one of the oldest traditions in American democracy.