After Republicans blocked a third nominee to the D.C. Circuit Court on Tuesday, the Senate seems poised for another partisan battle over filibuster reform.
On Tuesday, Senate Republicans blocked Georgetown law professor Cornelia Pillard by a vote of 56 to 41. She is the second blocked nominee since the GOP vowed in July to use the filibuster only for more serious matters, after Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) threatened to reform the filibuster rules because Republicans were obstructing the president’s nominees.
And yet, four months later, Senate Democrats were already expecting Pillard’s filibuster; for some time now, the GOP has claimed the president wants to pack the court — though he is actually filling vacant seats — and the party already blocked another Obama nominee in October.
Some Republicans also accuse Democrats of trying to start a nomination battle to distract from the troubled rollout of the Affordable Care Act, and do not believe that they will seriously pursue filibuster reform. Others say that the blocked nominations are justified, because each justice costs $1 million per year.
Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Pat Leahy (D-VT) is not buying that excuse. Speaking on the Senate floor, he noted that the “needless shutdown of our government would have paid for all these federal courts for years,” and added that Pillard — whose liberal stances on reproductive rights and gender equality are well known — is just the party’s latest “hostage.”
“If the Republican caucus continues to abuse the filibuster rule and obstruct the president’s fine nominees to the D.C. Circuit, then I believe … a rules change should be in order,” Leahy said.
“That is not a change that I’ve wanted to see happen,” the senator added. “But if Republican senators are going to hold nominees hostage without consideration of a nominee’s individual merits, drastic measures may be warranted.”
Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), however, maintains that changing the rules will only backfire on Leahy’s party. He warned Democrats to “be careful what you wish for” with regards to filibuster reform, but dared them to “go ahead” anyway.
“There are a lot more [Antonin] Scalias and [Clarence] Thomases that we’d love to put on,” said Grassley, referencing the two most conservative justices currently on the bench.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that if the rules are changed, at least we Republicans will get to use them when we’re back in the majority,” Grassley, a senior member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said while on the floor.
Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) — a longtime advocate for filibuster reform — says that Grassley is playing to “a misplaced concern,” because Republicans would probably change the rules as soon as they regained the majority. He argues that even “if there is a Republican president and a Republican majority, they will force up-and-down votes.” This was demonstrated in 2005, when former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) threatened to use the “nuclear option” — which would have removed the 60-vote requirement for confirmation of a judicial or executive nominee — to halt the organized use of the filibuster by Democrats. That feud was then resolved by the bipartisan “Gang of 14” senators, who successfully negotiated a compromise that emphasized using the filibuster in “extreme circumstances” only, something that Republicans seem to have forgotten they pushed for.
As a result, Merkley says the time for change is now, because “this obstruction is outrageous.”
Leahy is in agreement, adding that the constant obstruction “does not help in any way the credibility of the United States Senate,” and again reiterating that “we’re at the point where there will have to be a rules change.”
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