Bill Frist's nervous nuclear calculations

Saying that Republicans' hands "aren't clean" on judicial nominees, GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel leans hard against the nuclear option.

Published May 9, 2005 12:32PM (EDT)

Bill Frist may or may not pull the trigger on the nuclear option this week, but this much seems clear: The math for the majority leader is a little tighter than he'd like, and not just when it comes to public opinion.

There are 55 Republicans in the Senate; Frist needs votes from 50 of them -- plus one from Vice President Dick Cheney -- to kill the minority's right to filibuster judicial nominees. He's already lost John McCain and Lincoln Chafee, both of whom have said that they won't vote to go nuclear. That means Frist can stand to lose only three more Republicans, and it now appears that he's already lost one.

Appearing Sunday on ABC's "This Week," Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel all but announced that he won't vote for the nuclear option. Hagel said that "you can't give up a minority rights tool" like the filibuster, and he said that senators need to find a way "to work through this." "My goodness," Hagel said, "you've got 100 United States senators. Some of us might be moderately intelligent enough to figure this out. We would, I think, debase our system and fail our country if we don't do this."

If Hagel ends up voting against the nuclear option, Frist needs to hold on to all but two of the remaining Republicans. There are at least five Republicans who could go either way: Virginia's John Warner, Maine's Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, Oregon's Gordon Smith and Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter.

In signaling that he'll go south on Frist, Hagel completely undercut his Republican colleagues' false claims that what the Democrats have done to Bush's judicial nominees is somehow unprecedented. While Republicans have made only infrequent use of the filibuster against judicial nominees, they have done it. And they've done something worse: During the Clinton administration, they used "blue slips" and other tactics -- tactics that didn't always require political accountability -- to deny floor votes to more than 60 nominees. As Hagel explained Sunday, "The Republicans' hands aren't clean on this either. What we did with Bill Clinton's nominees -- about 62 of them -- we just didn't give them votes in committee or we didn't bring them up."

Hagel's comments had to be music to the ears of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who is at the end of his rope with Republican claims that Democrats -- who have allowed confirmation votes on more than 200 of Bush's judicial nominees -- are acting in some kind of "unprecedented" manner. Traveling through Utah, Reid focused on the falsehoods flying out of the mouth of Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, who, while serving as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, presided over the flurry of blue slips that blocked Clinton nominees but now says that the Democrats' actions are "unprecedented." "I can't imagine how Orrin Hatch can keep a straight face," Reid told the Salt Lake Tribune. "I don't know how, within the framework of intellectual honesty, he can say the things he does."

By Tim Grieve

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

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