Bush and the New Congress An ill wind is blowing

Posted: January 07, 2005

Republicans in the U.S. House are congratulating themselves this week for reversing one hypocritical power play. But as Washington gets down to business again, GOP leaders still show every intention of abusing their expanded power and burying the art of compromise.

Republican lawmakers did come to their senses in undoing the rule change that would have allowed House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R., Texas) to keep his post if he were indicted in a fund-raising probe in Texas. They shouldn't have approved this ethics charade in the first place, as their constituents crisply told them over the holidays.

But rescinding that ill-advised rule change doesn't alter the fact that the House GOP still has relaxed ethics standards in the new Congress. For example, the House Ethics Committee no longer can proceed with an ethics investigation on a tie vote. Since the panel includes an equal number of members from each party, this is a prescription for stalemate. The change sharply reduces the chances that this partisan chamber will police itself.

Dovetailing nicely with that lower standard, the House GOP also pushed through a new rule that makes it easier for elected members and their staffers to take relatives along on trips paid by private groups with legislation before Congress. And the Republican chairman of the Ethics Committee, Rep. Joel Hefley of Colorado, says he expects to be demoted because he allowed the panel to chastise DeLay three times.

This flexing of partisan muscle in the House still pales next to the raw display of power that President Bush and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R., Tenn.) are planning in the Senate.

The President couldn't even wait for his second inauguration to announce his intention to renominate 20 judicial candidates, most of them staunchly conservative, who had been blocked by Senate Democrats in his first term. (Among them is Peter Sheridan of Mercer County, N.J., nominated for a district court seat in Camden. New Jersey's Democratic Senators, Jon Corzine and Frank Lautenberg, oppose the nomination because Sheridan doesn't live in South Jersey.)

Yes, Bush may nominate whom he pleases, but this "in-your-face" maneuver scoffs at the very idea that the Senate is part of a separate branch of government with a constitutional duty of "advice and consent" on nominations. That role is most vital on judicial nominations; Cabinet members leave when the President does. Judges serve for life.

No president ever gets everything he wants; that's good, because no one, not even a reelected president, is right 100 percent of the time.

The claim that Democrats have been unusually, brutally partisan in rejecting Bush nominees does not stand up to scrutiny. The Senate did approve 209 out of 229 of Bush's judicial nominees in his first term, 100 of them in the 17 months when Democrats controlled the chamber. Democrats have blocked 10 of Bush's 52 candidates for lifetime seats on appeals courts, or 19 percent. That's twice as cooperative as Senate Republicans were to President Clinton's nominees in his first term, when 38 percent of appeals court candidates were blocked. In eight years, Republicans blocked more than 60 of Clinton's judicial nominees.

The Senate Judiciary Committee no longer appears to be anything but a rubber-stamp for Bush's nominees, now that its chairman, Arlen Specter (R., Pa.), has been cowed by the strafing he took from conservative operatives late last year.

Most disturbing of all, now that Republicans have expanded their control of the Senate to 55 out of 100 seats, Frist has indicated that the GOP is likely to abolish the filibuster. This parliamentary weapon of last resort allows the minority party to block actions, such as voting on nominations, unless there are 60 votes to proceed. This tactic has been part of the nation's system of checks and balances for 200 years.

The filibuster isn't always used for laudable reasons. In 1957, the late Sen. Strom Thurmond filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes against a civil-rights bill. But if Senate Republicans could momentarily cool their lust for one-party domination, they might acknowledge why the filibuster has endured so long.

It forces the two parties to talk to each other, to work together, to seek compromise. Not just on nominations, but on all types of bills. It's a sensible guarantee that the entire country will be represented when Congress votes, not just 51 percent of it.

In the next few weeks, Capitol Hill Republicans will show us which they value more: compromise, or iron control.

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