By Scott Conroy of the CBS News Political Unit
The filibuster – that longstanding political version of running out the clock – may be on the verge of extinction, but not if People For the American Way can help it. The left-leaning political advocacy group has initiated a television-advertising blitz to oppose the elimination of the filibuster option for blocking controversial judicial nominations.
At the National Press Club on Wednesday, the group introduced its $5 million campaign to resist a potential Republican effort to implement the so-called "nuclear option," which would change Senate rules to allow judicial confirmations to pass by a simple majority of 51 senators. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., has hinted that he may resort to taking steps toward that unprecedented move and states on his Web site, "The need to reform the filibuster of nominations is obvious and urgent."
Under current filibuster rules, 41 senators who oppose a controversial bill or judicial nominee can vote to continue debate and thereby block a final vote on the issue unless a supermajority of 60 senators vote to end the debate and call a vote.
"[The filibuster] underscores the genius of the founders of this great nation," said People for the American Way president Robert Neas. "It forces Republicans and Democrats to sit down and work things out."
If Frist decides to pursue the nuclear option, Vice President Dick Cheney, who serves as president of the Senate, would have to rule that filibusters against judicial nominees are unconstitutional, according to The Washington Post. The Senate would then vote to uphold the ruling, and if a majority agree with Cheney, filibusters against judicial nominees would effectively be eliminated. Upon passage of this ruling, the bar for confirming nominees would be lowered from 60 to 51 votes. If utilized, Neas said the maneuver would amount to a "horrible, unprecedented, parliamentary dirty trick."
In its new 60-second TV, People For the American Way evokes the Hollywood image of Sen. Jefferson Smith in the 1939 film, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," which features the fictional senator nobly utilizing a filibuster to make his voice heard. The screen then shifts to Ted Nonini, a soft-spoken, folksy Republican firefighter, who explains why he thinks it is important to keep the filibuster in place.
"I like that my party controls the White House and the Congress," he says. "But I also know that our democracy works best when both parties are speaking out and being heard."
The ad – which is currently running in Arizona, Maine, New Hampshire, Nebraska, Indiana, Oregon, Virginia – will eventually expand to markets in 18 states, all of which have at least one Republican senator on the group's target list. In the event of a rule-changing vote, Neas speculated that the tally would be precariously close, but contends that with the help of his group's "public education campaign," the nuclear option will ultimately be rejected by a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans.
Neas did not pull any punches on Wednesday, singling out Senators Frist, Lott and Santorum as members of the "radical right" who want to "pull the trigger" on the nuclear option. He hoped to portray these senators as a triumvirate of an out-of-the-mainstream faction of the Republican Party that is intent on solidifying its power at the expense of fairness and bipartisanship. Neas cited a Newsweek poll released in mid-March that found that only 34 percent of Americans would be in favor of the nuclear option, while 57 percent support the filibuster procedure as it stands. According to Neas, the use of the nuclear option for judicial nominees could lead to a "slippery slope," where the process might eventually be used to eliminate filibusters for debates on legislative issues.
Norman Lear, the famed television producer and founder of People for the American Way, also spoke at the National Press Club event via video link.
"Do we believe in the three branches of checks and balances? That's what's at stake in this issue," he said.
At Wednesday's press conference and various media releases, People for the American Way cited the longstanding tradition and historical importance of the filibuster in reaching compromise and ensuring the viability of the minority party. Lear did acknowledge that the parliamentary tool has at times been used for questionable endeavors. It was a Republican, the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, who delivered the longest filibuster in American history, when he railed against the 1957 Civil Rights act. Thurmond's public soliloquy lasted a cool 24 hours and 18 minutes.
There is no end in sight to the squabbles regarding the Constitution and the founding fathers' intentions, as President Bush continues to nominate more judges. The issue is likely to take on a heightened significance if and when there is a Supreme Court vacancy. In making their case against Senate Democrats, Republicans are quick to provide their own take on American political history.
"All that we're asking is that they return to 200 years of constitutional precedent and return to an up or down vote," said Frist's communications director, Bob Stevenson. "They are blocking the rights of all members of the Senate to fulfill their constitutional duty to advise and consent."
By Scott Conroy