Washington Prowler

Here’s the Deal

A victory for Republicans? Too many promises? Can Rehnquist now retire? Guess who thinks he can move on up...

By 5.24.05

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"There is no way this agreement that breaks Democratic obstruction can be spun any way other than as a victory for Republicans and the Bush Administration," said a Republican Senate leadership aide late Monday night, regarding the agreement reached by 14 senators to avert a showdown vote on the so-called nuclear option that would have ended Democratic filibustering of Bush judicial nominees.

The parameters of the deal insure that six of eight obstructed Bush nominees to the federal judiciary will receive an up or down confirmation vote in the Senate. The three most opposed Bush nominees to the court, Priscilla Owen, Janice Rogers Brown and William Pryor, will not have their nominations blocked any longer; also, three other Bush nominees will eventually receive an up or down confirmation vote as well; the only two nominees who still may be filibustered are Michigan judge Henry Saad and William Myers.

Also as part of the compromise, the Democrat moderates promise to prevent any future filibuster of Bush appeals court and Supreme Court nominees. While Democrats were able to have their "extraordinary circumstances" clause inserted in the deal, no one anticipates that such a situation will arise, assuming Democrats keep their promise. And it appears that a number of promises were being tossed around the negotiation room on Monday afternoon.

Several Republican senators involved in negotiations swore that not only will the six Bush nominees be given an up or down vote, but that Democrats in the room were aware that Republicans involved in the negotiations had agreed to vote cloture on Myers as well, and that Democratic negotiators had agreed that such a move could take place, thus also allowing Myers an up or down vote in the Senate. "Assuming that our guys hold themselves to that promise," says another Republican staffer working on the Judiciary committee, "then we're looking at a clean sweep for confirmations."

That said, Republican Judiciary Committee staffers said it would have been difficult to clear Saad for confirmation, regardless of the Democrats' unethical behavior in his case. Democratic Judiciary Committee staff and Senate Democratic leadership coordinated an attack against Saad by providing and then sending Sen. Harry Reid a memo detailing uncorroborated raw interview notes from Saad's confidential FBI background check.

"Saad has served on the bench in Michigan, he has been a public figure for years, he has had close associations with several Senate and House members from the state of Michigan," says a Washington lobbyist who has met with Saad on occasion. "This is an honorable man whose nomination was badly damaged by Democrats. Any future nominee should be aware of what the Democrats will do to destroy a good conservative."

If there are any potential losers in this deal, it is the moderate Republicans who have put their reputations on the line with not only their Republican colleagues, but also conservative voters. "If Myers doesn't get a vote, if a reasonable Supreme Court nominee does not receive a vote, or has his or her nomination blocked, then those moderate Republicans should be held accountable by not only the caucus but their constituents," said the Republican Judiciary staffer.

HOW TRUE TO THEIR word Democrats will be may become apparent in about a month, when Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist is expected to announce his retirement. Already in Washington rumors are swirling that current Attorney General Alberto Gonzales may be under serious consideration for the empty slot left vacant after one of the sitting justices is elevated to fill Rehnquist's role.. "You look at what he hasn't done in his few months at Justice," says a former White House staffer, "and it makes you think he's really been looking ahead and trying to keep as clear from controversy as he can."

Gonzales has managed to sidestep taking a position on the Terri Schiavo legal battle, and beyond stating his basic support for the eight judicial nominees in limbo, he has avoided being embroiled in this current debate. As well, he has made very few public appearances where anything remotely controversial could have been uttered.

"Everything points to a Gonzales nomination," says a lobbyist aware of the White House thinking on prospective judicial nominees.

One school of thought related to the threat of a constitutional "nuclear" option was that it would ensure the Bush White House an easier time in putting forward a solid conservative as the president's first nomination to the Supreme Court. But Gonzales would be unacceptable to just about every conservative group in Washington and beyond.

"I don't know of any conservative who worked to reelect this president who would be satisfied with a Gonzales nomination," says a Senate Judiciary staffer. "This president was reelected because conservatives want to see a conservative on the Court. If the president has a second opportunity, then perhaps there is room for Gonzales. But only after the president fulfills his promise to voters."

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