It is the prerogative of U.S. senators to stall legislative proceedings with a parliamentary tactic called the filibuster. Both Democrats and Republicans invoked it with increasing frequency in the second half of the 20th century. But as frustrating as a filibuster can be - the late Strom Thurmond holds the record for gabbing 24 hours and 18 minutes to block civil rights legislation - it is a legitimate congressional privilege.
Despite recent moves by Senate Republicans to curb filibusters to push through conservative judicial nominees, the use of extended debate to deal with objectionable candidates should not be abridged.
Even with its negative connotations - clearly warranted in some cases - the filibuster is sometimes the only thing between passage of a bad bill or confirmation of an unqualified nominee.
It is the option of last resort left to the political minorities in the Senate who may actually represent majority views on particular issues or nominees for the federal judiciary. Giving voice to those moderating forces, especially in the selection of federal judges named to lifelong jobs, may prevent the federal bench from being packed with extremists.
Sure, there is a temptation by Democrats and Republicans to filibuster nominees who are neither extreme nor unqualified for the post purely out of political spite. But the acknowledged political risks of playing obstructionist can come back to haunt an incumbent at election.
During the Clinton administration, the Republican-controlled Congress found ways to keep one third of the administration's appeals court appointees off the bench.
The Democrats charged the GOP with purposely delaying or denying presidential nominations because they came from the Clinton White House.
Now, Senate Republicans are leveling the same charges against Democrats for filibustering two federal appeals court nominees of the Bush Administration and threatening to prevent confirmation votes on at least two others.
Both parties are guilty and both parties continue to play the game.
But instead of working through partisan differences over the judicial appointment process and selection, Republican leadership in the Senate wants to change the rules. With no Democrats present, the Senate Rules and Administration Committee voted 10 to 0 to approve a resolution that would ultimately allow a simple majority of the chamber to clear a presidential nominee for confirmation.
Currently 60 of the 100 senators must agree to end the filibuster and move to confirmation. Republicans control the Senate with 51 lawmakers, and Committee Chairman Trent Lott is adamant about establishing “a precedent that it only takes 51 (senators) to advise and consent and confirm a federal judge.”
It's clear Senate Republicans are looking ahead to the Supreme Court with the growing speculation that perhaps two of the justices may retire in the near future. That would open the way for President Bush to fill his first vacancy on the high court.
For that reason alone, it is critical to retain the useful tool of extended Senate debate on judicial prospects. As contentious as it may be, the threat of filibusters may promote compromise and encourage the administration to submit less divisive nominees for consideration.
Senator Lott knows how easily the political tide can turn in the Senate. If the majority became the minority party tomorrow, would it be able to live with the rules it proposes to eliminate minority checks and balances?
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