Taking odds on the nuclear option

Bill Frist could put the nuclear option on the Senate floor as early as next week. Does he have the votes to win?

Published April 20, 2005 3:59PM (EDT)

A vote on the Republicans' nuclear option could come as early as next week, but it's still not clear that Bill Frist has the votes to blow up Senate tradition.

There are 55 Republicans in the U.S. Senate. Assuming that all the Democrats and independent Jim Jeffords -- who will announce his retirement today -- vote against the elimination of the filibuster, Frist will need to hold on to 50 votes from Republicans; Dick Cheney will provide the tie-breaking 51st vote if necessary. That means Frist can stand to lose five Republican senators. If he loses six, the nuclear option is dead.

Here's how the math looks now. John McCain and Lincoln Chafee have already announced that they'll vote no. Assuming they stick to their guns, Frist can win only if he limits his further losses to three. As the New York Times does the counting today, there are six Republicans who could go either way: Virginia's John Warner, who tells the Times that he sees the Senate as "the last bastion of protecting the rights of the minority" and that people should be "very careful" before making any changes; Olympia Snowe of Maine, who has said she has "deep concerns" about going nuclear; Nebraska's Chuck Hagel, who said over the weekend that he's been telling both sides, "don't include me in your count right now"; Susan Collins of Maine, who says that, while she's concerned about the "overuse" of the filibuster, she's also "concerned that a rule change will further charge the partisan atmosphere to the point that we will not be able to conduct business"; Oregon's Gordon Smith, a blue-state Republican who said in February that he's urging his colleagues to find a way to avoid the nuclear option; and Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, who has at least paid lip service to the idea that he really, really wants to avoid the need for a "nuclear" confrontation.

The six are facing intense lobbying from their Senate colleagues; Warner had nearly back-to-back meetings with Frist and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid Monday. They're getting a lot of external pressure, too -- and not all of it in the form of that silly Phil A. Buster animated advertisement. Frist will participate in a "Justice Sunday" program this weekend, a beamed-into-churches TV thing built around the idea that the Democrats' use of the filibuster is an attack on people of faith, and right-wing religious groups like Focus on the Family are holding Republicans feet to the fire. But there's also pressure coming from the other direction, and sometimes from unexpected sources. Gun Owners of America, which bills itself as America's only "no compromise gun lobby," is urging its members to fight the nuclear option. The reason? "Ending filibusters = more gun control."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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