WASHINGTON — The campaign to stop Senate Republicans from banning filibusters on federal judicial nominees received a boost this week from an influential Jewish civil-rights agency.
After sitting on the fence for months, the American Jewish Committee decided to oppose changes to the Senate filibuster regulations proposed by GOP leaders. The proposed changes are aimed at preventing the Democrats from using filibusters to block the appointment of judges who they view as conservative extremists.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, recently indicated his intention to bring such a change to a vote. Democrats refer to this initiative as the “nuclear option,” insisting it would end any bipartisan cooperation in the chamber and bring the Senate to a standstill.
Citing the highly charged, partisan nature of the debate, most large Jewish national agencies have refrained from taking a position on the filibuster issue. But now AJCommittee, an increasingly centrist organization, has added its name to the list of liberal and, in most cases, less influential groups opposing the anti-filibuster rule.
The two other main Jewish civil-rights agencies — the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Congress — are still considering their positions on the issue, officials with these groups said. Sources at both groups, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the AJCommittee’s decision might well influence theirs.
The National Council of Jewish Women, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and several local Jewish federations already have come out against the GOP proposal.
Last week, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a consultative body that unites 123 local Jewish community councils and 13 national agencies, including AJCommittee, decided not to vote on a controversial pro-filibuster resolution that was submitted for debate at its annual convention later this month. The council, the largest policy-coordinating body of Jewish groups in the United States, decided to refer the resolution to task forces, barring open debate unless the sponsoring agencies secure a two-thirds majority to force a floor vote. The National Council of Jewish Women, a liberal group that has opposed several of President Bush’s judicial picks for fear that they would curtail abortion rights, submitted the resolution to the JCPA opposing the “nuclear option.” JCPA officials decided not to bring it to a vote at their annual February plenum. Some participants said the measure had missed the council’s resolutions deadline. However, the Forward learned, the text met stiff resistance from groups reluctant to weigh in on judicial nominations as well as from Republicans, who said it would amount to the Jewish community endorsing the Democrats.
The director of the Washington office of the women’s council, Sammie Moshenberg, said that AJCommittee’s decision might help garner the two-thirds majority needed to bring the pro-filibuster resolution up to a vote at the JCPA plenum.
In opposing a change in filibuster rules, AJCommittee’s board of governors passed a resolution stating, “The Senate’s centuries-old rule providing for the use of the filibuster gives voice to minority viewpoints and encourages consensus on appointments to the judiciary.”
The legislative director of AJCommittee, Richard Foltin, said, “It’s very important not to have a situation where any nominee can be confirmed with 51 votes.”
Foltin stressed that the organization would, “absent very unusual circumstances,” stick to its stance of not taking positions on individual judicial nominations. He added that the decision to weigh in on the filibuster issue should not be understood as a “comment” on any specific nominee. “It is a larger concern about the way in which the Senate operates in theses kinds of situations,” he said.