Vice President Dick Cheney vowed on Friday to cast the tie-breaking vote, if needed, to ban Senate filibusters that Democrats have used to block some of the Bush administration’s most controversial judicial nominees.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid accused the White House of encouraging a “raw abuse of power,” despite what he said was a private pledge by President Bush last week not to get involved in “Republican efforts to break the Senate rules.”
“Now, it appears he was not being honest,” Reid said. “It is disturbing that Republicans have so little respect for the separation of powers established by our founding fathers.”
At stake is the power of each party in deciding who sits on the federal bench, including the U.S. Supreme Court, where rulings are made on matters from gay rights and abortion rights to civil rights and business interests.
Reid has promised to retaliate against any ban on judicial filibusters, a procedural roadblock Democrats have used to block nominees they deemed too right-wing, by bringing the Senate to a near-halt.
Cheney said it would be up to the Senate’s Republican leadership to decide whether to seek a ban, widely dubbed “the nuclear option” because of its potential destructiveness to bipartisan cooperation.
“But if the Senate majority decides to move forward, and if the issue is presented to me in my elected office as president of the Senate and presiding officer, I will support bringing those nominations to the floor for an up-or-down vote,” Cheney said in a speech to Republican lawyers.
“The filibuster of judicial nominees is, as a practical matter, an attempt to limit the president’s ability to appoint judges who have majority support in the United States Senate,” Cheney said.
Sixty votes are needed in the 100-member Senate to end a filibuster, but just 51 would be needed to change the rules to ban them.
CHECK ON POWER
Senate Republican leaders argue all nominees deserve a confirmation vote, while Democrats contend the filibuster provides a needed tool for the minority to check the power of the majority.
Republicans hold the presidency and Congress, and conservatives in the party’s base now want a more conservative judicial branch in the hope it would uphold legislative goals such as bans on abortion and gay marriage.
Democrats have filibustered 10 of Bush’s judicial nominees whom they have cast as “right-wing extremists,” while helping Republicans confirm 205 others.
It is unclear whether the Republicans, who hold 55 Senate seats, will have 51 votes to change the rules.
Some Republicans worried that banning filibusters against judicial nominees could haunt them in a future Democratic-led Senate with a future Democratic president.
Senate Republicans also learned this week of a private poll taken for them that found 51 percent of Americans oppose eliminating the filibuster.
It had been taken for granted that Cheney would side with Senate Republican leaders, but he guaranteed it on Friday and in his comments sought to add strength to the case.
“On the merits this should not be a difficult call to make,” Cheney began. “The Senate has full authority to set its own rules.”
Democrats have vowed to retaliate against a filibuster ban by using other procedural moves to stall Senate action on matters that they consider nonessential.
Cheney, as Senate president, would lead any proceedings to ban the filibuster. He would also make the ruling on whether the filibuster is constitutional, and then be able to cast the tie-breaking vote, if needed, on whether his ruling is upheld.
White House spokeswoman Erin Healy said: “The president has been very clear that this is a matter for the Senate to handle. The president believes that it is his responsibility to put forth well-qualified candidates and it’s the Senate’s responsibility to give them a timely up or down vote.”
© Reuters 2005