Nervous fingers on the nuclear button

With even their own internal polls suggesting caution, will Senate Republicans really kill the filibuster?

Published April 22, 2005 1:02PM (EDT)

Is it worth it?

That's the question Senate Republicans have to be asking themselves right now. By getting Priscilla Owen and Janice Rogers Brown through the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday, the Republicans have got the question of judicial nominees teed up exactly how they want it: If Democrats block floor votes on Owen and Brown, they'll be filibustering two women, one of them an African-American. And when Republicans get William Pryor out of committee in the next few days, they'll have a Catholic in the mix, too. The nuclear option won't just be a way to get George W. Bush's judges confirmed -- it will be a blow against discrimination on the grounds of gender, race and religion, too!

But is it worth it?

Republicans have learned a little about the consequences of over-reaching lately. Tom DeLay was able to skate through a sea of ethical allegations until he dove headfirst into the Terri Schiavo case; now charges that once would have slipped off of him are sticking in the minds of a public that's seen a little too much of the house majority leader. And Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who was going to be in for a tough re-election fight anyway, is watching his poll numbers slide in the wake of the Schiavo affair.

And now, as the Associated Press reports, Republicans in the Senate are having to come to terms with the idea that ending the filibuster may separate them from the public all over again. Public polls show that Americans want Democrats to serve as a check on the Republicans in Congress -- and that they oppose any move to end the filibuster. The AP says aides to Republican senators were briefed on internal GOP polls Thursday and that the word contained therein is as bad as the public polls suggest: American oppose the nuclear option by 51-37 percent, and only about 20 percent of Americans believe the Republicans' claims that Bush is the first president to have judicial nominees blocked by the filibuster.

If the Republicans pull the trigger, they'll please the hard-core evangelicals that make up their base, and Bill Frist will have helped himself with the wingers who will turn out to vote in the 2008 presidential primaries. But Frist and those who follow him in the Senate will have turned off a lot of other voters in the meantime. George W. Bush can handle that kind of trade-off; his need to win elections is over. But what about the Republican senators? When Senate tradition has been thrown out the window, when the workings of the Senate have ground to a halt, voters will want to know why it happened. Will Republicans be able to make the case that getting Priscilla Owen on the federal bench was really worth the consequences, even though a popular Republican like John McCain says it isn't? And in November 2006, if Rick Santorum has just lost his bid for re-election, will he still think it was?

By Tim Grieve

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

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