The cold war over
the Alito nomination may turn very hot this week and Republicans
should be prepared for an aggressive and very serious Democratic
opposition that is looking for something more than a moral victory.
months ago I suggested that, politically, the Democrats had
little option but to filibuster Alito. As the hearings begin today
I don’t believe much has changed. If anything, the bounce
back in President
Bush’s poll ratings puts more pressure on the Democrats
to fight. Had Bush’s numbers continued to fall and it looked
as if the wheels were truly coming off his second term, Senate
Democrats might have been more inclined to let Alito quietly through
to restore the focus on Bush and his problems. But with the President
fighting back and his approval ratings stabilized, the pressure
on Senate Democrats to do something more than just vote "no"
will be enormous.
last two months, Senate Democrats wisely have held back much of
their firepower so as not to appear they were just giving a knee
jerk “NO” to anyone Bush would nominate after Miers.
Given their minority status, Democrats have followed a smart strategy.
First, they got the hearings pushed back into January, slowing
the entire process down considerably. Last
week they indicated that they will invoke their right to hold
the judiciary committee vote over for one week, creating a further
delay. (Though the nominations are very different, a similar strategy
of delay was very effective with the Bolton nomination and played
a big part in his eventual recess appointment.)
Expect Democrats to
press Alito this week in a way they did not with John Roberts
in the hope that relentless pressure will cause Alito to slip
up or lose his cool - something Roberts never came close to doing.
Failing a “mistake” by the nominee, Democrats will
declare his inevitable “non-answers” to be unacceptable
and will try to paint him as out of the mainstream and different
than Chief Justice Roberts.
I thought a filibuster would be very unwise for the Democrats
because it would gin up the Republican base and it was a fight
that they at the end of the day simply don’t have the cards
to win. However, Democrats want to keep their based fired up and
they want to display a willingness to confront Bush and the GOP.
A rerun of the Roberts hearings ending with a 58-42 vote for Alito
(as opposed to 78-22 for Roberts) is nothing but a loser to their
base and a huge conservative victory. The 5-4 majority conservative
decisions Alito will be part of for the next 25-30 years won’t
contain an asterisk at the bottom saying he only received 55 votes
in the Senate.
the odds are that a sustained filibuster would be met with a change
in the Senate rules and Alito’s ultimate confirmation, an
argument can be made that strategically it is good political move
for the Democrats. If Reid can hold 40 votes and sustain a filibuster
(a big if), Democrats would throw down the gauntlet to the GOP.
While I think Frist has the votes today to ram though the “nuclear”
option, there’s always a chance Democrats get lucky and
find three GOP Senators (Warner, Specter, and McCain, perhaps)
to join Snowe, Collins and Chafee in refusing to change the Senate
Win or lose,
a filibuster would energize the Democrats' base, and even if they
fail to stop Alito's confirmation....how much have they really
lost? They could say correctly that Alito was going to get through
anyway. They would lose their ability to dangle the filibuster
threat for the rest of the Bush term in respect to judicial nominees,
but the potency of that weapon has already been significantly
reduced. In the previous three years they already have maxed out
what was politically acceptable with filibuster tactics on judicial
nominations before the GOP leadership finally got serious about
fighting back this spring. So if the Senate rule on filibusters
did get changed, while Republicans may like it now, I suspect
it is a rule change the GOP would come to regret.
In the long
run the two seats per state make up of the Senate gives the GOP
a significant edge in counterbalancing larger more populous Democratic
states. Any diminution of Senate powers to the minority is not
a good long-term move for conservatives. Things change in politics
and it would not be hard to envision an environment in the next
50 years where Democrats win big in the House and Presidency,
but the GOP holds on to 40-45 Senate seats and is in a position
to frustrate left-wing policies and judicial
In the short term
it is not at all impossible that the Democrats could pick up 2-3
Senate seats in 2006. If they got a handful more in 2008, they
could be looking at a President Hillary Clinton and a very slim
Senate majority – in which case Democrats might very much
like the idea of a GOP minority without the filibuster weapon
when it comes to Hillary’s judicial nominees. (Of course,
just because Republicans might not institute the nuclear option
when they are in control does not guarantee that Democrats would
be as deferential to Senate rules and precedent when they are
calling the shots.)
few weeks are in many ways the beginning of the ’06 and
’08 campaigns, and the Alito nomination battle will be a
comment on the strength and unity of each party. If a filibuster
is mounted we will see whether the GOP caucus is as aggressive
and committed to winning as the Democrats. If we don't see a filibuster,
I suspect that would be an indication that the Democrats are weaker
and more divided than is commonly thought in Washington.
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