The GOP's Filibuster Hypocrisy
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Republican leaders thundered that any use of the filibuster against Alito or other Bush judicial nominees would force them to go "nuclear" by outlawing filibusters forever. Then, the Republicans could ram through whomever - or whatever - they wanted.
Rather than call the Republicans' bluff, "moderate" Democratic senators joined a bipartisan group called the "Gang of 14," which agreed to forego filibusters except in "extraordinary circumstances." And despite the alarm of many Americans about Bush's moves to eradicate the Republic, this "gang" did not believe Alito's confirmation reached the "extraordinary" standard.
So, when a few Democratic senators led by Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts tried to mount a filibuster, the Senate Democratic leadership refused to put up a fight, even as their former standard bearer was mocked by Republicans as a "Swiss Miss" for first urging the filibuster while he was attending an economic conference in Davos, Switzerland.
Presidential spokesman Scott McClellan piled on Kerry at a White House press briefing. "I think even for a senator, it takes some pretty serious yodeling to call for a filibuster from a five-star ski resort in the Swiss Alps," McClellan laughed.
In support of his filibuster, Kerry could line up only 25 votes, while the Republicans amassed 72 votes for cloture - a dozen more than the 60 needed to shut off debate. Those votes included 19 Democrats.
On the final confirmation vote, however, Alito was approved by a much smaller margin, 58-42, meaning that he could have been kept off the Supreme Court if all those who considered him a poor choice had backed the filibuster.
[As for the fate of the Supreme Court, Justice Kennedy turned out to be less of an extremist than some Republicans had hoped. He joined with more moderate justices in key 5-to-4 opinions that rebuffed President Bush's assertions of unlimited powers.]
Despite the timidity of Senate Democrats in the Alito battle, an energized Democratic "base" - joined by Republican constitutionalists - fought on against the "permanent-Republican-majority" dreams of Bush, Karl Rove and the neoconservatives. In November 2006, the Republicans were repudiated at the polls.
Suddenly in the congressional minority, the Republicans did a flip-flop on the filibuster, discovering the high principles behind the tactic. The GOP used the filibuster routinely in 2007 and 2008 to block Democratic initiatives, especially any challenges to Bush's expansive claims of executive authority.
Typical of the modern Washington press corps, its leading voices changed, too, joining the Republican chorus hailing the filibuster as an honored tradition of democracy and finding value in the need for the Democrats to muster 60 Senate votes to pass any significant bill.
Today, the press corps continues in that pattern, forgetting the GOP's earlier contempt for the filibuster and treating its use by the Republican minority against the stimulus bill as normal.
There are rarely any comments about obstructionism, nor are the Republicans compared to the Southern segregationists who famously used the filibuster to resist civil rights laws in the 1950s and 1960s.
Given this pass by the press, Republicans are making the filibuster their chief weapon in pressuring Obama and congressional Democratic to accept more of a Republican-style stimulus bill with less spending and more tax cuts, regardless of whether that represents the best hope for the U.S. economy.
But the stimulus battle is likely to be only the first taste of the GOP strategy to hobble the Obama presidency. The Republicans can be expected to use the filibuster again and again to prevent many of the social and economic changes that the American voters endorsed in November 2008, policies like national health insurance and spending on long-neglected domestic needs.