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GOP considering rule change to forbid judicial filibusters

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Senate Republicans are considering changing the rules to prevent Democrats from filibustering judicial nominees, Majority Leader Bill Frist said Nov. 14.

The move would have a substantial impact on the confirmation of judges — an issue high on the list of importance by evangelicals and social conservatives.

“It’s clearly one of the options,” Frist, a Tennessee Republican, said on “Fox News Sunday,” according to a transcript. “I’ve always said it’s one of the options.”

Democrats have used the filibuster to block 10 of President Bush’s judicial nominees and have threatened to filibuster even more. Much of the opposition concerns the judges’ supposed pro-life views. All of them have a majority of support but not the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. A rule change, though, would change that.

If the GOP were to change the rules, a judicial nominee would need only 51 votes to pass — or 50, if Vice President Cheney were to break a tie. With the filibuster, the threshold is much higher at 60.

The rule change — called the “nuclear option” by some — would involve Republicans voting to change the rules and forbid the filibustering of judicial nominees. Such a rule change, supporters say, would require only a simple majority of 51 votes. The fact that Republicans increased their majority status from 51 to 55 votes seems to have made such a rule change more likely.

Conservatives argue that the filibustering of judges is unconstitutional and prevents the Senate from giving the constitutionally mandated advice and consent on judges. They argue that the Constitution is clear when a super-majority of votes in the Senate is needed — for example, to convict during impeachment and to ratify a treaty — and that judicial confirmation isn’t one of them.

Frist seemed to indicate he agrees with that argument.

“[I]t’s called the nuclear option. It’s really a constitutional option,” Frist said. “And what that means is that the Constitution says you, as a Senate, give advice and consent, and that is a majority vote. And then you vote on that, and that takes 50 votes to pass.

“And I think it clearly becomes a viable, viable option if we see a minority denying the majority the opportunity to express advice and consent.”

But Frist said he has three to four options that deal with the filibuster issue. He did not reveal the others.

“I’m going to do everything within my power as majority leader, with a full choice of — a full toolbox, a full armamentarium, which includes this constitutional option,” he said.

Frist’s comments came three days after he delivered a speech to the conservative Federalist Society in which he said that “one way or another” the “filibuster of judicial nominees must end.” He asserts that — prior to the current situation — a judicial nominee had never been filibustered when there was majority support on the Senate floor.

Among evangelicals and social conservatives, the confirmation of judges ranks alongside abortion and same-sex “marriage” in terms of importance.

The 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion is viewed by many as the birth of the modern pro-family movement. Since then, social conservatives have worked to see that ruling overturned, and they see a change in the makeup of the Supreme Court as the best option.

In addition, the same-sex “marriage” movement has evangelicals fearing that the Supreme Court one day will legalize same-sex “marriage” nationwide. It already is legal in Massachusetts.

Without a filibuster, Democrats would be hard-pressed to defeat Bush’s judicial nominees.

Appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” Sen. Joe Lieberman, D.-Conn., said Republicans have blocked judges in the past.

“During the Clinton years, as far as I can tell, more than 60 of President Clinton’s judicial nominations were blocked not by a filibuster but because the Republican-controlled Judiciary Committee never even gave those nominees a hearing.

“The point of fact here is that both of these, the filibuster and the blocking of even a hearing under President Clinton, are signs of a government here in Washington that has grown too partisan.”

Frist touched on several other issues during the Fox News Sunday interview:

— He refused to endorse Sen. Arlen Specter as chairman of the Judiciary Committee and said the matter is up to the full committee.

Specter, R.-Pa., has been in hot water since the day after the election when he made comments that were widely interpreted as a warning to Bush not to send to the Senate any pro-life Supreme Court nominees.

“What I expect is for a chairman to understand that they are no longer responsible just to themselves or just to their constituents back at home but, as chairman of the committee, they’re responsible to the feelings, the wishes, the beliefs, the values, the procedures that are held by the majority of that committee,” Frist said. “That is, in this case, the Republican caucus on that committee, the Republican committee members.”

The chairman must have a “strong predisposition” to supporting Bush’s nominees both in the committee and on the floor, Frist said.

— Frist said he supports Bush’s stem cell policy, which prohibits the destruction of embryos. The policy supports adult stem cell research and also funds embryonic stem cell lines that were in place when the policy was set.

Frist was asked if the policy should be reviewed.

“It’s been three years since the president’s initial policy, a policy that I agree with,” he said. “It comes back to that value of the human embryo, that you’re not going to destroy it for experimental purposes. But with that advancing science over time, clearly we’ll come back and review that policy and the advancing science as it relates to the moral values which don’t change.”

— The protection of traditional marriage is a “huge priority” for him, Frist said.

“I will do everything within my power to continue to protect marriage as the union between a man and a woman,” he said.
With reporting by Tom Strode.

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