For one measure of the toxic, partisan atmosphere in the Republican-controlled Senate, consider the predicament of Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman.
In 1995, the arch-centrist joined a fellow Democrat, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, in proposing a rule change that would have kept the 60 votes presently required for “cloture” of a Senate filibuster, but decreased it by three votes with each of the next three cloture attempts until it got down to a simple majority of 51. The proposal foundered when the Republican majority unanimously opposed it, along with much of the Democratic leadership.
More recently, Lieberman has found himself on the other side of the filibuster debate. In 2003, in response to efforts by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to push the “nuclear option” to end judicial filibuster, Lieberman told the Senate’s Committee on Rules & Administration that the GOP proposal was not like his and “amounts to a demand for unilateral disarmament.”
“It is an effort to force the current minority party to swallow a rules change that allows this president and his party to carve an exception from the Senate rules for their out-of-the-mainstream judicial nominees, while keeping the parts of the cloture rule that they want to continue taking advantage of,” Lieberman said. He added, “In contrast to the serious reform effort we made, this proposal amounts to one party’s effort to turn a Senate rule into a partisan tool — to cherry-pick its favored issue in the name of democracy, while leaving themselves free to filibuster away on legislative proposals they don’t like.”
Lieberman voted to sustain all the Democratic judicial filibusters in the last Congress and would do so again for the seven Bush judicial picks who were filibustered but whom the president re-nominated, according to a Lieberman spokeswoman, Casey Aden-Wansbury. He will consider new nominations on a “case-by-case” basis.
“He basically believes that, in a very polarized Congress, the 60-vote majority is the best way to encourage bipartisan government and moderation in government,” Aden-Wansbury said. “Earlier, he believed that the filibuster allowed the minority to stop government work, but with the increasing polarization, it’s a way to get government to work.”
In earlier years, Republicans might have tried to reach across the aisle to a centrist such as Lieberman on judicial filibusters. Now, not a chance.
“There’s an iron phalanx on filibuster,” said columnist Joshua Micah Marshall, who watches Lieberman closely on the Social Security issue. “I’d be stunned if he caved.”