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The Chamber Meets the Force

By Dana Milbank
Friday, May 20, 2005

Senators love to talk about their chamber as the "world's greatest deliberative body."

Yesterday morning, Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) used the phrase. Yesterday afternoon, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) used it. But it took Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) to show why the Senate is the world's greatest deliberative body.

The octogenarian legislator, rising in defense of the filibuster, displayed a larger-than-life poster of Ian McDiarmid playing the evil Supreme Chancellor Palpatine in the just-released film "Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith."

"In a far-off universe, in this film, the leader of the Senate breaks the rules to give himself and his supporters more power," Lautenberg inveighed. "I sincerely hope that it doesn't mirror actions being contemplated in the Senate of the United States."

Lautenberg juxtaposed the evil chancellor with another poster, of Jimmy Stewart playing Sen. Jefferson Smith in Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." That film, Lautenberg said, "is a celebration of this Senate, the world's greatest deliberative body. But if the majority leader is successful in ending the filibuster . . . we will move from the world's greatest deliberative body to a rubber-stamp factory."

Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, people might have considered such a display on the Senate floor to be cheap. But in the debate over President Bush's judicial nominees, which won't end until Tuesday at the earliest, anything worth saying on either side has long ago been said -- repeatedly.

"It's not 'Has it all been said?' but 'Has everybody said it?' " said Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.), hopping on the Senate subway at midday to deliver his rehash of the facts on the Senate floor. Bond found himself to be the lone senator on the floor, but neither this nor his concern about being repetitious diminished his performance. The Democrats' use of the filibuster "is a perversion of the intent of the Constitution!" he proclaimed. "We must take steps to wipe it from the books."

The debate itself may lack suspense, but the looming showdown is the only game in town on Capitol Hill this week. It has shut down Senate committees, ended any voting on the Senate floor and turned the House of Representatives into an asterisk.

As the House voted at noon yesterday -- a major spending bill was on the floor -- not a one of the 100 seats in the gallery overlooking the floor was occupied. The members of an entire subcommittee could have danced naked on the House floor without making the news. "When you consider this is major legislation, it's empty in here," observed a House aide in the mostly abandoned House press work area.

On the Senate floor, Republicans protested that Democrats were not doing "the people's business."

"Do the people's business," commanded Sen. David Vitter (R-La.). "What we have here is a further effort to make it impossible to do the people's business," complained Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

But there was little evidence of either party doing the people's business, unless the people are clamoring for an extended argument about cloture votes. True, the "Congressional Wine Caucus" had a meeting and a "Summit on Pornography" was underway. Still, the day's media schedule in late morning showed four of seven events were about the filibuster, and none about terrorism, war or the economy.

After Democrats assembled the Congressional Black Caucus to make the case for filibusters in the morning, Republicans retaliated by holding an event with black ministers in the afternoon. When Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) called a news conference to protest military base closings, he was greeted by only half a dozen reporters, and the questioning inevitably turned to the filibuster.

Having long ago mustered all possible arguments for and against the judicial filibuster, senators took turns provoking one another on the floor yesterday. The number three Republican, Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), said Democratic arguments are "the equivalent of Adolf Hitler in 1942 saying, 'I'm in Paris. How dare you invade me? How dare you bomb my city?' " Two months ago, Santorum demanded that Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) retract his statement mentioning Nazi Germany and "how men with motives and a majority can manipulate law."

Still, it was hard to top Lautenberg, whose staff announced, in a media advisory, that the senator "will have visual aids to make his point -- great for television!" After Lautenberg, echoing a new MoveOn.org advertising campaign, likened Republican leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) to Palpatine, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), on a visit to the Senate press gallery, was asked what character Democrats represent. "We are the Jedi knights," he replied instantly. "We have the light source."

Frist spokesman Bob Stevenson scoffed at these claims, suggesting the Democrats are in fact led by a floppy-eared outcast from Naboo. If Frist is Palpatine and Democrats are Jedi, Stevenson wondered, "would that make Howard Dean Jar Jar Binks?"

It is a question worthy of the world's greatest deliberative body.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company