The "Gang of 14" meets on Alito

Maybe Republicans would go nuclear if Democrats filibustered. But maybe that's a reason to do it.

Published November 3, 2005 2:41PM (EST)

As the vice president's chief of staff goes before a federal judge in Washington this morning, 14 members of the U.S. Senate are gathering for a meeting that may decide the fate of the president's latest Supreme Court nominee. The "Gang of 14" is meeting today in the offices of Sen. John McCain, and there are signs that the group's verdict -- when it comes -- will be a good one for Sam Alito.

As we reported yesterday, Democratic Sen. and "Gang of 14" founding member Ben Nelson has had words of praise for Alito. After meeting with the nominee yesterday, Nelson said that, at least for now, he has a "comfort level that I'm satisfied with." Meanwhile, two Republican members of the gang, Ohio's Mike DeWine and South Carolina's Lindsey Graham, have both suggested that they won't stand for a filibuster of Alito's nomination -- and that they might help Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist pursue the nuclear option if one occurs.

That doesn't mean that Democrats can't filibuster Alito; Sen. Tom Harkin, maybe getting himself a little ahead of the ball, said pretty unequivocally this week that he expects Democrats to filibuster the nomination. What it does mean -- or at least, what it may mean -- is that if Democrats filibuster, the Senate will be plunged back into the nuclear option showdown it faced just a few months ago, and the Gang of 14 may not be around to save it from Armageddon this time.

Is that a bad thing for Democrats? Not necessarily. The Democratic base is eager to see signs of life from the party's standard-bearers in Washington. Witness all the flowers and fruit baskets Harry Reid has been getting as thanks for forcing the Republicans' hand this week on the Senate investigation into the administration's use of prewar intelligence. And if Republicans blow up the Senate's rules in response to Democrats' concerns about protecting abortion rights -- concerns the American people share -- the move could backfire among voters in 2006 and beyond.

But would Democrats risk a filibuster if they thought the nuclear option was really on the table? They did it in May -- before Karl Rove was implicated in the Plame link, before Katrina exposed the Bush administration to charges of cronyism and incompetence, before the 2,000th U.S. soldier died in Iraq, before Scooter Libby was indicted -- and they lived to tell the tale. With a weakened opposition this time around, what's to stop them from trying again?

Of course, all that presupposes that Alito is the kind of nominee that Democrats would want to filibuster in the first place. He certainly seemed to fit the mold initially, but the latest revelations about Alito may give Democrats -- and Republicans, for that matter -- at least a little pause. As the Boston Globe reported yesterday, Alito chaired, as a senior at Princeton, an undergraduate task force that accused the CIA and the FBI of invading the privacy of citizens, said discrimination against gays in hiring "should be forbidden" and argued for the decriminalization of sodomy -- or any other sexual act -- between consenting adults. The report came more than three decades ago, meaning Alito and his college colleagues were way ahead of the nation on issues of privacy and rights for gay men and lesbians, but also meaning that Alito has had plenty of time to change his mind since then.

By Tim Grieve

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

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