Senate Democrats formally threatened yesterday to bring the chamber to a virtual standstill if Republicans carry out a plan to change Senate rules and bar filibusters of judicial nominations. The comments, which Republicans quickly denounced, signal that the two parties remain on a collision course whose outcome could be so explosive that it is generally called the "nuclear option."
Democrats have made similar threats in recent interviews and speeches, but yesterday's actions -- including a letter to GOP leaders and a mass gathering on the Capitol's east steps -- marked their biggest effort yet to show solidarity on an issue that many expect to reach a climax next month.
Democrats have infuriated Republicans by using stalling tactics, or filibusters, to prevent 10 of President Bush's appellate court nominees from reaching a confirmation vote on the Senate floor. Democrats note that 204 Bush nominees have been confirmed and say the 10 in question are so conservative that they fall outside the political mainstream. Republicans reject the charge, and Bush has renominated seven of the stalled appointees.
Senate rules require 60 of the 100 members to agree to halt a filibuster and bring a question to a simple-majority vote. Republicans, who hold 55 seats, say Democrats have abused the process to block a succession of nominees who deserve a vote on confirmation. Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) repeatedly has threatened to pursue a parliamentary ruling that would ban filibusters of judicial nominations, but not legislation. Senators from both parties say it is unclear whether Frist has the 51 votes he would need to sustain such a ruling and trigger the nuclear option.
Frist signaled no change in plans yesterday, saying in a statement: "To shut down the Senate would be irresponsible and partisan. The solution is simple -- return to 200 years of tradition and allow up or down votes on judges."
Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) unveiled his two-page letter to Frist at a Capitol steps photo opportunity, surrounded by most of his party colleagues. Noting that countless Senate procedures and shortcuts require all 100 senators' consent, Reid's letter said that if Republicans remove the right to filibuster judges, "the majority should not expect to receive cooperation from the minority in the conduct of Senate business." He said Democrats would cooperate on legislation "supporting our troops" and keeping the government running, but otherwise would refuse to facilitate actions "even on routine matters."
Many Democrats praised Reid's move. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) endorsed the call "for Republicans to obey the rule of law and abandon their reckless threat to use the 'nuclear option' to eliminate the Senate's right of extended debate on judicial nominees."
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) was among those urging calm on both sides. "I think the public interest would be best served by toning down the rhetoric and moving ahead with the confirmation process" for Bush's nominees, he said.