Friday, November 05, 2004

The New Senate

Josh Marshall seems to be hearing the opening strains of Vader's March as he looks toward the upcoming legislative session in Washington.
He links to a Fox News story discussing Sen. Arlen Specter and Bush's judicial nominees. This amazing quote appears in the story:
"As it stands today [Democrats] can block [a nominee]," said C. Boyden Gray, former legal counsel to President George H.W. Bush. But I also believe that the president and majority leader may well decide to change the rules given the elections ... The president has a very strong political support, potential support, for asking for and getting this change." (emphasis mine)

This is indeed an alarming prospect, but it has about the same chance of happening as I have of being named supreme overlord of the planet.

The current rule requires 60 votes to impose cloture on a filibuster, which given the Senate's makeup, is possible but not likely. A change in that rule requires a 2/3 majority of 67 votes-even less likely. Unfortunately for Mr. Grey and President Bush, a majority leader can't simply decide to change the rules. The Senate is still a parliamentary body, which means that its members have to vote on things to get them done, crazy as that may sound in view of the new "mandate".

I actually see this kind of talk from Republican senators and the administration as an encouraging sign. They are clearly feeling their oats after Tuesday, and have the hubris knobs cranked to 11. Senator Frist and the president may want to ask Dwight Eisenhower how easy changing the cloture rule is. In 1956 and 1957, with astronomical approval ratings, the Eisenhower administration and Minority Leader Knowland tried to achieve a change in cloture rules to avoid a filibuster by southern Democrats against civil rights legislation. Public opinion was firmly in favor of the change, the Republican delegation was solidly behind it, and the liberal wing of the democratic caucus was fairly foaming at the mouth to amend the cloture rule. And yet the southern Democrats won the day.

Certainly this outcome is largely attributable to the legislative juggernaut of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Russell, but it stands as a warning to those who would attempt to monkey with Senate rules. Even under the best of circumstances, it's difficult to do. And I know there aren't any LBJ-caliber legislative geniuses on the left side of the Senate aisle, but given the proven willingness of the Democrats to filibuster Bush's nominations, I'm not ready to panic.

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