The Killer Instinct

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Senate chaplain started yesterday's judicial showdown with a prayer for "patience and peace" and "unity where there is division." Thirty-three minutes later, the majority leader just about accused the minority of attempted murder.

The Republican leader, Bill Frist (Tenn.), was asked why he, the head of the anti-filibuster movement, had voted to uphold the filibuster of a judge in 2000. Frist at first stammered -- "Mr. President, the, in response, the Paez nomination, we'll come back and discuss it" -- and then settled on an answer: "It's not the cloture votes, per se," he said, using the term for filibuster-breaking votes. "It's the partisan leadership-led use of cloture to kill, to defeat, to assassinate these nominees."

The Democratic whip, Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), later walked into the chamber with a transcript of Frist's accusation. "Those words should be taken from the record," he demanded. They were not.

As political combat goes, Frist's triggering yesterday of the "nuclear option" of banning judicial filibusters hit the chamber more like a neutron bomb -- those weapons that kill people but leave structures intact. The public and press galleries were mostly empty, and with a vote on the matter days away, only a few lawmakers on either side took their seats. The presiding officer, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), played with his BlackBerry and flipped through "A Pictorial Guide to Senate Floor Staff."

What action there was on the Hill was outside the Senate chamber. As a dozen lawmakers tried to broker a late compromise, reporters camped outside their offices -- first that of Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) and then Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) -- eating lunch and predicting what the senators would say upon exiting (nothing).

After lunch, Democrats held an outdoor "Stop Abuse of Power" rally. As though they were in a wedding procession, Senate Democratic leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) walked down the stairs from the Senate chamber trailed by dozens of colleagues. "Give 'em hell, Harry," Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) called out, and Harry did.

On the floor, there was little drama but ample bitterness. Just before the debate started, the opposition intercepted an e-mail with talking points from Frist's former counsel. He proposed a "straightforward rallying cry: NO DEALS, VOTE PRINCIPLE."

Frist was on message. "I do not rise for party, I rise for principle," he said at the start of his speech, which mentioned the importance of an "up-or-down vote" 22 times.

But Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) evidently didn't get the memo. "This debate is not about principle," he later announced on the floor. "It's all about politics."

The Senate, as was oft remarked yesterday, may be "the world's greatest deliberative body." But it was not always in evidence at the start of the judges debate. Reid brought in a dictionary to amplify Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales's description long ago of Priscilla Richman Owen, one of President Bush's judicial nominees, as "unconscionable."

"Unconscionable: shockingly unjust or unscrupulous," the Democrat read.

Frist's office responded in kind. When Democrats demanded that he retract his accusation that they are assassins, the Republicans rushed to and said Frist was referring to character assassination. The real lexicographical villain, Frist aides said, was Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who called Bush's judicial nominees "Neanderthals." Neanderthals, the majority reported, were "an extinct human species . . . living during the late Pleistocene Epoch."

Frist started the session with a plea for "an orderly debate." But that hope dissolved almost immediately, as Reid, Kennedy and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) took turns hectoring Frist about why he wouldn't bring up other judicial nominees who could win quick confirmation. The majority leader, clasping his hands and shuffling his papers, replied with "We will be proceeding with Priscilla Owen" and "What I'd like to do is proceed with Priscilla" and "I'm trying to move to a qualified nominee, Priscilla Owen."

Finally, he said in exasperation: "We hear these attempts to delay even right now and to sidetrack." The debate was only 12 minutes old.

Reid was in no mood to make things easier for Frist. He announced that Democrats would invoke their rarely used power to block committees from meeting while the Senate was in session. Frist huddled with a pair of aides over a copy of Congress Daily, assessing the potential damage: 10 hearings on Wednesday and 13 more on Thursday.

While Senate moderates held closed-door talks, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) made their case on the floor. Specter blamed both sides for the standoff. Recalling the Founding Fathers' belief in self-restraint, he urged: "If we turn our backs on their example, we will debase and cheapen what they have given us."

One can only imagine how the Founders would have viewed yesterday's events. While Frist spoke of killers, Kennedy spoke of "tyranny" and Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) spoke of "dictatorship." Republicans displayed a large portrait of Owen in the chamber that made it look as though she were a missing person. And Reid, in his excitement, briefly accused the vice president of a dalliance. Dick Cheney is a "great paramour" of virtue, Reid said, before correcting himself to say "paragon."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company