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GOP Files Cloture Motion to End Debate
For Republicans, the key issue is that the 10 blocked nominees enjoyed "majority support" in the Senate, but were blocked through what the GOP calls an unprecedented pattern of filibustering that, in effect, has set a higher threshold for confirmation. With 55 Senate seats, the Republicans can easily approve Bush's nominees by a simple majority, but lack the party-line votes to break a filibuster.
As described by Senate sources, the nuclear option would be triggered if, as currently expected in the absence of a compromise, the Republicans fall short of the 60 votes they need to end debate on Owen on Tuesday. At that point, Frist would rise to make a point of order that debate on a judicial nominee should be limited and call for an end to the Democratic delays.
Vice President Cheney, as the presiding officer of the Senate, would rule in Frist's favor, prompting Democrats to appeal. Frist would then move to table the appeal, and the Senate would vote on that motion, which is not subject to debate. If the motion passed by a simple majority, the Senate would then vote at a specified time on the nomination of Owen, with a simple majority required to confirm her. If the motion failed, the nomination would not come to a vote.
Thus, the vote on the motion would set a new precedent for ending filibusters, effectively circumventing the Senate requirement of a two-thirds vote -- 67 senators -- to change the body's rules. This de facto rule change would be the "nuclear option" so dreaded by Democrats and some Republicans.
In today's debate, Democratic senators said they placed no stock in Frist's promise that the use of filibusters would be denied only for judicial nominees. They raised the prospect that filibusters would also be effectively abolished for executive nominees and legislation, fundamentally changing the character of the Senate as a body in which minority rights are protected and lawmakers are forced to compromise.
If Frist's effort succeeds, "any future Senate could use the nuclear option to change Senate rules," said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). "The character of the Senate would be destroyed as a uniquely deliberative body."
Levin warned that "this nuclear option . . . will cause a permanent tear in the Senate fabric" and "produce a deeply embittered and divided Senate."
"Do not take this fateful, unprecedented and misguided step that is being proposed," Levin told fellow senators. "I urge my colleagues to reject the reckless course of the nuclear option."
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and one of the GOP senators involved in negotiations with Democrats, said the chamber today "has the feel of a Hollywood stage set," with a relentless countdown to a nuclear blast. But no movie hero will emerge to save the day, he said. Instead, "it is up to us to save the Senate."
Specter repeated his call for a compromise in which Frist and Senate minority leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) would "liberate their caucuses to vote without party straightjackets." Without party-line votes, Specter said, he was convinced that "most Democrats would reject obstructive tactics" of using filibusters to block nominees, and "most Republicans would reject the nuclear option to change the Senate rules."
Noting that the "systematic filibusters" by Democrats were initiated as "payback" for the blockage of Clinton's nominees, Specter said the first step in resolving the dispute is for Republicans and Democrats "to concede publicly that both parties are at fault."
Specter said, "The option of a filibuster for really extraordinary circumstances ought to be retained, but not for a pattern of getting even." He said he hoped the nuclear option vote could be avoided, because "either way the vote comes out, it will be harmful to the Senate."
If the motion fails, he said, "it will embolden the minority party to recklessly misuse the filibuster," possibly to scuttle such nominations as that of John R. Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. If it passes, "it will embolden the appointers to having greater latitude in the nominees that will be submitted," Specter said.
Referring to the U.S.-Soviet nuclear standoff during the Cold War, the senator said, "If the United States and the Soviet Union could avoid nuclear confrontation . . . so should the United States Senate."