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Showdown imminent: Frist says Senate will tackle issue of judicial filibusters this week

WASHINGTON (BP)–In a move long anticipated by conservatives, Senate Republican leaders will bring two judicial nominees to the floor this week, likely triggering a showdown over judicial filibusters, Majority Leader Bill Frist said in a statement May 13.

“Members must decide if their legacy to the Senate is to eliminate the filibuster’s barrier to the Constitutional responsibility of all Senators to advise and consent with fair, up or down votes,” the statement read.

Frist said the Senate will first complete action on the highway bill, which has been debated on the floor for several days. A vote on that is expected to take place early this week, after which Frist says he will bring to the floor the nominations of two of President Bush’s appeals court nominees — Priscilla Owen and Janice Rogers Brown — who were filibustered during the last session.

Even though both have the votes for confirmation, Democrats have filibustered them, saying they are outside the judicial mainstream. Republicans say judicial filibusters are unconstitutional.

Abortion rights and homosexual activist groups have led the opposition to Bush’s nominees. It takes 60 of the Senate’s 100 votes to overcome a filibuster. Confirmation requires only a simple majority.

Frist said if the nominations are again filibustered, he will begin a procedural process whereby the filibuster on judicial nominees would be eliminated by a simple majority vote — in essence a change in the rules. Specifically, Frist said he “will seek a ruling from the Presiding Officer regarding the appropriate length of time for debate on such nominees.”

After the ruling — which is expected to be a recommendation that judicial nominees cannot be filibustered — Frist said he “will ensure that every Senator has the opportunity to decide whether to restore the 214-year practice of fair up or down votes on judicial nominees; or, to enshrine a new veto by filibuster that both denies all Senators the opportunity to advise and consent and fundamentally disturbs the separation of powers between the branches.”

Democrats have filibustered nearly one-fifth of Bush’s appeals court nominees. Republicans say it’s the only time in Senate history that judicial nominees with majority support have been prevented from receiving an up-or-down vote. They note that even Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas — two controversial nominees from the late 1980s and early 1990s — were not filibustered.

A rule change could impact the court for years to come, making it easier to confirm Bush’s more conservative nominees. A change in the makeup of the Supreme Court could impact such social issues as abortion, religious freedom and “gay marriage.” Conservatives see a chance to roll back decades of liberal rulings if enough conservative judges are placed on the federal courts, and in particular the Supreme Court.

Social conservatives, including Southern Baptist leaders, support the rule change.

“The Democratic minority has blocked nearly 20 percent of the president’s nominees to the appellate courts, and many of these nominees have been criticized for their pro-life rulings and their pro-life views,” Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, previously told Baptist Press.

“Let’s be clear about this. The filibuster is not in the Constitution. It is a Senate rule,” he said. “Senators have a right to advise and then vote either for or against a particular nominee. They do not have a constitutional right to keep the Senate from voting. We are saying it is well past time for the filibustering of judicial nominees to stop.”

Frist said the issue has been delayed long enough.

“It is time for 100 Senators to decide the issue of fair up or down votes for judicial nominees after over two years of unprecedented obstructionism,” he said. “The Minority has made public threats that much of the Senate’s work will be shut down. Such threats are unfortunate.

“… If Senators believe a nominee is qualified, they should have the opportunity to vote for her. If they believe she is unqualified, they should have the opportunity to vote against her.”

It is not clear whether Frist has the votes to pass the rule change. Republicans have 55 seats and could afford to lose five of them, whereby Vice President Richard Cheney would break the tie.

Already, three Republicans have said they oppose the rule change — Lincoln Chafee (R.I.), John McCain (Ariz.) and Olympia Snow (Maine).

The known undecided Republicans are Susan Collins (Maine), Arlen Specter (Pa.), Chuck Hagel (Neb.) and John Warner (Va.).

Pro-family leaders have called on citizens to call their senators at the Capitol switchboard, (202) 224-3121, and ask them to vote for a rule change to end filibusters.
Frist’s full statement can be read online at http://frist.senate.gov/index.cfm?FuseAction=PressReleases.Detail&PressRelease_id=1937.

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