Group To Debate GOP Bid on Judge Picks

By Ori Nir

Published December 24, 2004, issue of December 24, 2004.
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WASHINGTON — The Jewish community’s top public-policy consultative body is weighing a proposal to oppose attempts by Senate Republicans to block Democrats from filibustering conservative judicial nominations.

The proposed resolution, which comes as some Democratic and Republican lawmakers are both warning of a fierce confrontation over the issue, will be debated at the annual plenum in February of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs, a consultative group that brings together 13 national Jewish agencies and 123 local community relations councils, and that is considered the community’s chief venue for voicing consensus views on domestic issues. The resolution is being pushed by two of the most liberal national organizations in the council, the Union for Reform Judaism and the National Council of Jewish Women, as well as by local community relations councils of Boston; Denver; Eastern Fairfield County, Conn., and Portland, Ore.

Under discussion by members of the council, the proposed resolution thrusts Jewish organizations into one of the most divisively partisan disputes in American politics — and an area that they generally avoid: judicial nominations. The resolution states that “eliminating the filibuster as a procedural recourse for the minority in confirmations of individuals to life-time seats on the federal courts threatens to result in court-packing by the majority party.”

Democrats have used filibusters to block votes on 10 of Bush’s federal judicial nominees that they describe as having ultra-conservative views on a range of issues, including abortion and civil rights. In response to conservative critics, Democrats note that 207 of Bush’s picks have been approved by the Senate, and at a much higher rate than judicial candidates nominated during the Clinton administration.

With Bush likely to get a chance to appoint several Supreme Court justices during his second term, and with conservative activists feeling emboldened by the election, the Senate Republican majority is under pressure to assert its power by changing the chamber’s rules and procedures to disallow filibusters on judicial nominations. If Republicans make good on their threats to do so, they will effectively reduce the bar for confirming a controversial presidential nominee to the bench by lowering the number of votes needed to end a filibuster from 60 to 51.

In the incoming Senate, Republicans will enjoy a 55 to 45 majority.

Senate Democrats refer to the potential elimination of their ability to filibuster to block judicial nominations as a “nuclear option.”

Congressional staffers and experts predict that although Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, has indicated his intention to pursue the “nuclear option,” there would be enough opposition among his GOP colleagues to block such a drastic move. Instead, experts say, Republicans may seek either a comprehensive compromise with Senate Democrats or try to mobilize public opinion against the Democrats’ obstructionism.

Still, some Democrats are speaking out against the threat. If Republicans pursue the course that Frist has proposed, Democrats say, the minority party will use every trick in the book to obstruct GOP legislation initiatives. Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat who has led the way in fighting Bush’s judicial nominations, recently told reporters that the nuclear option “would make the Senate look like a banana republic” and would therefore “cause us to try to shut it down in every way.”

The resolution opposing the proposed Republican plan is likely to be approved by the public-affairs council, despite reluctance among some Jewish organizations to take sides on the issue.

“We are hoping that other members would endorse it, and we are getting some initial positive support,” said Sammie Moshenberg, Washington director of the National Council of Jewish Women, which has broken ground with other major Jewish organizations by aggressively opposing many of Bush’s nominees. Even if the draft resolution ends up being rejected, she said, “It also serves to educate the community about what is going on.”

The draft resolution was circulated among national Jewish agencies and community-relations councils last week. Officials with member groups of the public-affairs council said it was too early to characterize the nature of the debate. However, some did say that they expect some internal dissent on several grounds.

For starters, sources said, most Jewish organizations generally tend not to take a public position on judicial nominations. Some never do; most others oppose only specific nominees in rare cases that they find particularly disturbing.

Although the proposed resolution does not deal with a specific nominee, some Jewish officials are concerned that it may be perceived as putting the Jewish community as a whole in opposition to Bush’s judicial picks.

Similarly, though the resolution does not mention political parties — the statement is headlined, “Draft Resolution on Protecting Minority Rights in the U.S. Senate” — it clearly is intended to support the ability of Democrats to block judicial nominees that they strongly oppose. “To the extent that we could demonstrate [the resolution] as protecting minority rights and opposing the attempt to short-circuit processes, that is pretty appealing,” said an official with a major Jewish group who supports the draft resolution. “Then again,” the official added, “it is very partisan and very political, and I can see people having a problem with that.”

Most national Jewish agencies are expected to endorse the resolution or a form of it.

The public-affairs council has developed a reputation for leaning to the left of the wider-organized Jewish community. In a decade-long development that some observers say has weakened the influence of the council, the balance of power within the organization has shifted away from the national organizations and toward the local community relations councils, which tend to attract more liberal activists.

One national group, the Orthodox Union, which in the past has dissented or abstained from several controversial left-leaning resolutions adopted by the public-affairs council, probably will not support this one, either, according to the organization’s Washington representative, Nathan Diament. He stressed that his organization, which represents 1,000 Orthodox congregations, has not yet deliberated the draft resolution.

Barbara Weinstein, legislative director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, participated in drafting the resolution, She disagreed with the view that the resolution is political or partisan. “This is not political but institutional,” she said. “The party in the minority today is not going to be in the minority forever. The nation changes, and to do a wholesale rule-change in this way really threatens the long-term health and stability of the institution itself.”

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