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Tilting at Windmills

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May 4, 2011

SENATE GOP FILIBUSTER OF JUDICIAL NOMINEE FAILS.... This probably won't generate a lot of attention, but it's arguably the most significant political development of the day.

A trial lawyer nominated by President Barack Obama to be a federal judge in Rhode Island is on track to be confirmed after a Senate GOP filibuster attempt failed Wednesday.

Eleven Republicans joined with Democrats in the 63-33 vote Wednesday to support John McConnell's nomination. GOP leaders opposed McConnell, citing his record as a trial lawyer in cases against businesses.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who is not related to the nominee, accused John McConnell of being a lying, anti-business ambulance chaser, and was backed up by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which broke with tradition and urged senators to block the nomination, and the religious right, which condemned him as a cultural liberal.

But something very interesting happened on the Senate floor today. Senate Republicans launched a filibuster against John McConnell -- just a few years after these same Senate Republicans said judicial filibusters are the single most outrageous and unconstitutional abuse imaginable -- and the filibuster failed.

Eleven Senate Republicans -- Alexander, Brown, Collins, Graham, Kirk, McCain, Murkowski, Snowe, Thune, Chambliss, and Isakson -- broke ranks, ignored the GOP leadership, and voted for cloture. It's certainly possible that some or all of the 11 will vote against John McConnell's confirmation, but they agreed that he is entitled to an up-or-down vote.

Sure, 33 Republicans said the opposite. And sure, nearly all of those 33 spent eight years condemning judicial filibusters as tearing at the very fabric of democracy. And sure, the hypocrisy from some of the GOP senators is pretty astounding.

But 11 Senate Republicans did the right thing -- and that's pretty astounding.

On the substance, McConnell is a terrific progressive nominee, and the far-right's apoplexy is ridiculous. But in the bigger picture, there's a vacancy crisis in the judiciary right now, created almost entirely by Senate Republicans refusing to allow President Obama's judicial nominees to be considered in a timely manner. Today was a big step towards addressing this crisis in a fair, bipartisan way. Republicans don't have to like all of the nominees the White House sends to the Senate, but they should at least stick to their own principles and allow the jurists to get an up-or-down vote.

This afternoon, 11 Republicans agreed. It was a very pleasant surprise.

Jonathan Bernstein added that the existing logjam allows a handful of uncontroversial nominees to be confirmed in periodic bursts -- basically one or two a week, who generate unanimous support -- but has stymied judicial nominees who enjoy majority support, but face significant GOP opposition. Progress on John McConnell today suggests there may be progress on this group, too, clearing the way for breaking the logjam, and offering Obama a chance to help shift the judiciary away from the far-right.

Here's hoping the progress continues.

Postscript: Thanks to Glenn Sugameli at Judging the Environment, my go-to expert on judicial nominees and confirmations, for the background info and links.

Steve Benen 4:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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Comments

I will probably be proven completely wrong about this, but perhaps Obama's ballsiness re: OBL, will help Republican doubters be less reticent about siding with him now and then. Just a thought.

Posted by: bos'n on May 4, 2011 at 4:05 PM | PERMALINK

there are a few suspicious names in that group (mccain and graham most importantly), but otherwise, is it possible that finally there are a few republican members of the senate who have gotten tired of all this bullshit?

nah!

Posted by: just bill on May 4, 2011 at 4:05 PM | PERMALINK

As with Palin and the Osama photos, we can depend on the US Chamber of Commerce to be on the wrong side of the issues almost all the time.

Posted by: MuddyLee on May 4, 2011 at 4:09 PM | PERMALINK

Very curious. Did Harry Reid do something different? Or is this nominee somehow more politically connected than others? We need more information, because it is doubtful that the Republican senators who supported a vote have changed their basic stance.

Posted by: keith on May 4, 2011 at 4:20 PM | PERMALINK

One can hope that Graham and McCain are finally going to stop with the tiny stuff. Maybe McCain is starting to realize how his image has sunk in Village.

Snowe, Collins and Brown were more understandable (especially since two of them are up in 2012).

I expect to see Murkowski voting against the Rs a lot.

Alexander likes to think of himself as an elder statesman.

Chambliss is a big surprise, but a welcome one.

Still in all, nice news.

Posted by: zmulls on May 4, 2011 at 4:20 PM | PERMALINK

Article: "Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who is not related to the nominee, accused John McConnell of being a lying, anti-business ambulance chaser, and was backed up by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which broke with tradition and urged senators to block the nomination, and the religious right, which condemned him as a cultural liberal."

LOL. Everything above is a ringing endorsement for the nominee. Mitch McConnell accusing anyone of being a liar is hilarious.

Posted by: max on May 4, 2011 at 4:30 PM | PERMALINK

What happened? I want to know the back story.

Posted by: Ron Byers on May 4, 2011 at 4:30 PM | PERMALINK

The Senate Republicans know now they don't have to kowtow to the extreme elements of their party, that is if they can see by this momentous move, there can be safety in numbers! -Kevo

Posted by: kevo on May 4, 2011 at 4:31 PM | PERMALINK

"they should at least stick to their own principles"

Republicans have principles?

Posted by: Daryl P Cobranchi on May 4, 2011 at 4:41 PM | PERMALINK

I hope "there's a vacancy crisis in the judiciary right" was intended as "...right NOW."

Posted by: CRA on May 4, 2011 at 4:42 PM | PERMALINK

What changed? For one, it appears that there was no opposition from the Blue Dogs.

Let this be a lesson to those who accepted on faith that Democrats could never reach 60 votes on anything because GOP obstruction was impossible to stop.

Before the November election, the GOP was a useful bogeyman for Democrats. In reality, the largest hurdle to passing more liberal legislation was always ConservaDems. What incentive was there to reach out to a Brown or Snowe or Collins when there were a half dozen or more ConservaDems who opposed more liberal legislation? By blaming the GOP, it allowed the Blue Dogs to serve their corporate masters while avoiding party criticism. Similarly, by blaming the GOP, Obama and Reid avoided looking like weak leaders who couldn't keep their own party in line.

Posted by: square1 on May 4, 2011 at 4:43 PM | PERMALINK

It's a sad commentary on the state of the Senate, when behaviour which should be considered normal is something worth not just passing notice, but deserves a viva voce singing of Hallelujah. But I'll take my crumbs of comfort wherever they come from :)

Posted by: exlibra on May 4, 2011 at 5:14 PM | PERMALINK

Some guesses as to the backstory:

1. It's probably true that some Republican Senators no longer feel it necessary to vote in lockstep with leadership on certain lesser matters.

2. This is a nomination for a District Court position, which is much less significant than Court of Appeals level nominations.

3. The post is in Rhode Island, which is a very blue state, so there is no Republican local opposition that is likely to have any impact on a Republican voting for cloture.

4. The Republicans may be thinking that they have some chance of winning back the White House in 2012, and are trying to muddy the waters regarding filibustering nominations, in hopes that the Democrats will not be as aggressive in opposing a Republican President's nominees.

Posted by: DRF on May 4, 2011 at 5:24 PM | PERMALINK
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