GOP proposal to change Senate rules spurs uproar

Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd warned on Monday that he would bring the U.S. Senate to a virtual standstill if Republicans carry out a threat to change its rules by outlawing filibusters on judicial nominations.

Byrd of West Virginia, a staunch defender of the Senate’s often arcane rules and procedures, was responding to a comment by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who said Sunday he might move to restrict filibusters if Democrats try to block the nomination of Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Minutes after the Senate returned from a three-week vacation Byrd challenged Frist, a Tennessee Republican, in an unusually pointed floor debate.

“If the senator wants a fight, let him try. I’m 88 years old but I can still fight and fight I will for freedom of speech,” Byrd said.

Byrd said he did not expect a filibuster against Alito, but complained, “I’m tired of hearing this threat thrown in our faces if we decide we want to filibuster.”

The filibuster is a tactic used to indefinitely prolong debate on the Senate floor. The debate can be stopped if 60 senators vote to do so. The Republicans hold 55 of the Senate’s 100 seats, not necessarily enough to end a filibuster.

“My principle is an up or down vote … that’s all I’m arguing for, is an up or down vote,” Frist told Byrd.

Byrd shot back, “That’s never been the rule here. Senators have the right to talk, the right to filibuster.”

If Frist tries to limit that right, “He’s going to see a real filibuster,” Byrd warned.

The filibuster and the Republican’s so-called “nuclear option” for limiting it have been hotly debated all year as senators girded for President George W. Bush’s nominations to fill Supreme Court vacancies.

Democrats have already blocked some of Bush’s choices of conservatives to serve as judges on lower courts.

Earlier this year a group of 14 Republican and Democratic senators reached a pact to reserve the filibuster only for “extraordinary circumstances.”

The pact held and Democrats did not stage a filibuster this fall over the Senate’s confirmation of John Roberts as a replacement for the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

The Senate is due in January to begin debate on whether to confirm Alito to the Supreme Court to replace retiring Justice Sandra O’Connor.