Federal Courts and Nominations

Groups Square Off Over Senate Filibuster Change



Liberal and conservative interest groups in the trenches of the judicial wars squared off on the Senate’s filibuster rule change, but both sides said it will help further their causes.


Liberal groups applauded the change, saying it will help move long-stalled Democratic nominations of people likely to press their policy goals. Conservative groups mostly blasted the move, but some looked ahead to when Republicans again hold the White House and control the Senate, which would let them use the same rules to install GOP-backed nominees.


“Go ahead, make my day,” said Carrie Severino, chief counsel and policy director at Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative group involved in judicial nomination battles. Referring to two of the most conservative Supreme Court justices, she added: “There’s a lot of (Antonin) Scalias and (Clarence) Thomases that we’d like to have on the bench. It will make it that much easier.”


The new rule applies to most judicial and executive branch nominations, although Democrats carved out Supreme Court nominees from the change. Lifetime judicial nominees, in particular, often turn on hot-button social issues such as abortion. Business and labor, too, have a wide range of interests in picks for the courts and other offices.


Those confirmations can trigger all-out lobbying wars among interest groups that have battled for decades over the ideological makeup of the courts.


The nation’s largest abortion rights groups, Planned Parenthood Federation of America and NARAL Pro-Choice America, both declined comment, leaving it unclear whether they are concerned about their ability to block future objectionable nominees. By contrast, the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List criticized the move, saying Democrats had “flung open the doors to radically pro-abortion nominees.”


With Thursday’s change by Democrats, it will be easier for a sitting president to install favored nominees and harder for opponents to stop them. In recent years, senators in the minority party have delayed or blocked some presidential nominees, using a procedure to require 60 votes for confirmation, rather than a simple majority of 51. That 60 vote hurdle is now gone for all nominations except those for high court.


Some said the change makes sense from a non-partisan, good government point of view.


“Both parties have blocked presidential nominations and eliminating or modifying the filibuster makes sense,” said Ari Fleischer, who was press secretary for former President George W. Bush. He added the Senate should have changed the rules at the start of a new Congress, not partway through.


“It is certainly true that this rule change will give presidents of both parties more leeway in picking nominees of their choice, subject to the normal majority political process,” said Doug Kendall, president of the Constitutional Accountability Center.


Liberal groups expressed little concern about losing their own ability to filibuster future objectionable nominees.


“Am I worried? No, I’m not worried,” said Nan Aron, president of the liberal group Alliance for Justice, which closely tracks judicial nominations. She said that if Democrats did not make the change now, Republicans would do so when they regained power later.


Heritage Action, a conservative group, called the filibuster change “an attempt to remake America to reflect their unworkable and unpopular progressive vision.” Michael A. Needham, the group’s CEO, said, “If Reid and his colleagues continue down this path, they will set a precedent that fundamentally alters the role of the minority in American politics,” he added, referring to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.).


The bad feelings generated by Thursday’s move may impact unrelated issues before Congress, such as budget negotiations.


“It grossly complicates and adds another level of emotion to an already emotional debate between Democrats and Republicans, particularly on anything to do with taxes and spending,” said Stan Collender, who worked for Democrats on the House and Senate budget committees.


Maya MacGuineas of the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, agreed. “The partisan tensions this creates certainly make any deal more difficult,” she said.


Geoff Burr, chief lobbyist for Associated Builders and Contractors, a group lobbying for an immigration overhaul, is also concerned.


“It certainly erodes any trust or desire to work together between the two parties if any still exists,” he said. “But at the same time, the use of this maneuver could be expanded and used to force through controversial legislation that didn’t have sufficient support to pass under existing rules.”

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