Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- A scenario for an unspecified day in 2005: One of President Bush's judicial nominations is brought to the Senate floor. Majority Leader Bill Frist makes a point of order that only a simple majority is needed for confirmation. The point is upheld by the presiding officer, Vice President Dick Cheney. Democratic Leader Harry Reid challenges the ruling. Frist moves to table Reid's motion, ending debate. The motion is tabled, and the Senate proceeds to confirm the judicial nominee -- all in about 10 minutes.
This is the so-called "nuclear option" that creates fear and loathing among Democrats and weak knees for some Republicans, including conservative opinion leaders. Ever since Frist publicly embraced the nuclear option, he has been accused of abusing the Senate's cherished tradition of extended debate. In truth, during six years as majority leader, Democrat Robert C. Byrd four times detonated the nuclear option to rewrite Senate rules.

 Thus, Frist would set no precedent, would not contradict past Republican behavior and would not strip the GOP of protection as a future Senate minority. The question is whether Republican senators will flinch from the only maneuver open to confirm Bush's judges.

 The unprecedented Democratic plan to filibuster judicial nominations that do not meet liberal specifications has exceeded all expectations. None of 10 filibustered Bush appellate court nominees has been confirmed, and another six are all designated filibuster victims. This is intended to have a chilling effect on Bush in filling Supreme Court vacancies.

 All 16 of these nominees are dead under present procedures. Even with the net gain of four Republican senators in this year's elections, Frist falls short of the 60 votes needed to cut off debate. After early skepticism, I have come to agree with Frist's conclusion that the old-fashioned filibuster-breaker of round-the-clock sessions is a non-starter. Today's Republican senators lack the will to undergo this ordeal. They would have to maintain a heavy presence on the floor while a single Democrat could hold forth.

 Frist drew a line in the sand Nov. 11 in addressing the conservative Federalist Society: "One way or another, the filibuster of judicial nominees must end." The way he indicated was a rules change -- the nuclear option.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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