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Debate Heats Up Over Senate Rule to End Filibusters

Democrats fight a GOP plan that would weaken a delay tactic used to kill two Bush nominations.

June 06, 2003|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Republicans and Democrats angrily accused each other Thursday of subverting the Senate's constitutional powers and edged closer to a showdown over a GOP drive to prevent outnumbered senators from killing presidential nominations with filibusters.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has proposed easing the Senate's rule to end filibusters, which Democrats have used to block President Bush's nominations of two federal judges. Such procedural delays can be ended now only with the votes of 60 of the Senate's 100 members, a margin that Republicans have failed to muster in the case of the judges.

Senate Rules Committee Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.), whose panel held a hearing on Frist's plan Thursday, said Democrats were using filibusters for "what I consider to be a hijacking of the Senate's constitutional responsibility to advise and consent on nominations."

Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, the only Democrat co-sponsoring Frist's plan, said his party's treatment of Bush nominees is the revenge of "special interest groups that failed to elect a majority of the Senate" last year.

But Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.) said the White House-backed efforts to change the Senate's rules belied Bush's campaign promises to change the tone in Washington.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) said the Senate was designed to work slowly and protect minority views. "This resolution points an arrow at the heart of the constitutional liberties of the American people," Byrd said.

Many view the fight over judicial nominees Miguel A. Estrada and Priscilla Owen -- and Frist's effort to rewrite the rules -- as a prelude to even rougher fights should vacancies occur on the Supreme Court.

With Democrats holding 48 Senate seats, plus a Democratic-leaning independent, members of both parties say Frist will never get the 67 votes required to change a Senate rule. Some Republicans have threatened to use what both sides call the "nuclear option," a precedent-setting ruling by the GOP lawmaker presiding over the Senate that filibusters cannot be used against nominations.

Democrats said Republicans were following Bush's desire to rewrite Senate rules to free up the nominations of Estrada and Owen. They said the Senate has approved 127 of the 129 Bush nominees to the bench that it has considered. "Because it's not 100%, we are entertaining changing the rules," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). "It's almost like a temper tantrum."

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