Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Nuclear Deterrence

Harry Reid and Senate Democrats have thrown down the gauntlet, in no uncertain terms. If GOPers follow through with their threat to pursue the so-called "nuclear option" (a procedural maneuver that would outlaw filibusters on judicial nominations and allow them to slide through on a simple majority vote), Senate Dems will stop cooperating with all the legislative lubricants (many of which require unanimous consent) that keep the chamber operating.

According to (subscription-only) Roll Call today, every Senate Democrat is on board with this strategy, and while Republicans claim to have 50 solid votes for upholding the rule change that's at the heart of "going nuclear," their ranks are shaky, beginning with Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter.

There are several smart things about the way Reid has approached this fight.

First, he's made it clear that Democratic resistance will not extend to issues like support for U.S. troops, urgent national security matters, or the basic functioning of the federal government. This will avoid some of the parallels the media, in its two-sides-to-every-argument approach to partisan issues, would otherwise draw to Newt Gingrich's defiant and hugely unsuccessful government shutdown of 1995.

Second, Reid is treating the "nuclear option" not as a procedural matter, or even as a defiance of Senate traditions, but as part of a broader pattern of abuse of power by the Republicans who control Washington. As such, he is linking Democratic opposition to this tactic to a broader message of reform, which is exactly what Democrats ought to be doing every day of the year. If nothing else, it will help remind the roughly one-third of the population that doesn't know who runs Congress that Republicans can no longer pose as the anti-Washington party, because they are in charge of the whole federal government.

And third, in terms of the underlying dispute over the judiciary, Reid is linking Democratic resistance to a long bipartisan tradition of opposition to one-party and executive-branch control of the federal bench. I hope Democrats take every opportunity to remind people that these are lifetime appointments we are talking about, which could have a profound impact on the laws of this country for decades.

Now, Democrats obviously have a Big Bertha in reserve: the GOP's real goal, which is to pave the way for Supreme Court appointments designed to overturn Roe v. Wade, the long-delayed payoff to the cultural conservative foot-soldiers of the Republican base. As a self-proclaimed (if moderate) pro-lifer, Reid may well have special credibility in opposing an indirect assault on the right to choose, by GOPers who know they would lose any straight fight on abortion.

Add it all up, and you've got a formula for raising the stakes on this obscure-sounding conflict, and that's what Democrats need in order to win. Some real drama is required to overcome the media perception that this is just cloakroom maneuvering by the partisan pols in Washington, over a snoozer of an issue.

Maybe the Democratic battle-plan will act as a deterrent to the deployment of the nuclear option. Some GOPers, after all, want to use the so-called Judicial Obstruction issue as a conservative fundraising and crowd-pleasing device going into the 2006 elections. And even more of them won't be happy with the consequences of provoking a partial shutdown of the Senate, interfering with all sorts of opportunities for pork-barrelling, constituency-tending, and beast-starving (not to mention those handy little bills naming some home-state highway interchange after a big contributor or local potentate).

But deterrent or not, this is a fight well worth having, and a fight that can only be won if Democrats are serious and systematic about waging it with a large reform message.
-- Posted at 5:36 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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