Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) threatened yesterday to strip Democrats of the power to filibuster if they block the vote on Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr.
"It would be against the intent of the Founding Fathers and our Constitution to deny Sam Alito an up-or-down vote on the floor of the United States Senate," he said on "Fox News Sunday."
His willingness to consider a procedural maneuver called the "nuclear option" seemed somewhat premature. Last week, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said that although he anticipates intense questioning of Alito during next month's hearings, he does not detect strong sentiment for using the filibuster to stall a vote.
A spokesman for the leading Senate Democrat agreed.
"As far as I can tell, the only person talking about a filibuster is Senator Frist and some of the far-right fringe groups," said Jim Manley, spokesman for Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.). "This kind of talk is silly and unhelpful."
Another Senate Democrat agreed: "Senator Frist has thrown down the gauntlet at a time when the country least needs it," Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) said in a statement. "The American people know that checks and balances are an integral part of our government."
Under Senate rules, a lawmaker can thwart action by talking nonstop. It takes 60 votes to override a filibuster, which means Frist would need every Republican and five Democrats to force a vote. But Frist, as he has done in the past, said he would be willing to seek a parliamentary ruling declaring the filibuster cannot be used in judicial nominations. He would need only a simple majority -- 51 votes -- to uphold that view.
In May, seven Democrats and seven Republicans -- known as the "Gang of 14" -- signed a pact agreeing that a judicial nominee would be filibustered only under "extraordinary circumstances."
Specter and several Democratic senators said they intend to press Alito on his writings on abortion and states' rights. A federal appeals judge who worked in the Reagan administration, Alito wrote what Specter called "a very strident advocacy memo" on overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.
When the Senate was weighing the nomination of John G. Roberts Jr. as chief justice, several of the Gang of 14 said that a nominee's ideological views would not constitute an extraordinary circumstance.