"Senators in Need of a Spine"

Filibuster Alito? Mary Landrieu says the Senate has more "pressing" matters before it.

Published January 26, 2006 2:46PM (EST)

Samuel Alito is inching ever closer to confirmation, and it seems ever less likely that Democrats in the Senate will work up the nerve to filibuster. "Because we have such a full plate of pressing issues before Congress, a filibuster at this time would be, in my view, very counterproductive," Louisiana Democrat Mary Landrieu says. "We simply cannot afford to bring the Senate to a halt at a time when we need its action the most."

Katrina relief may be more "pressing," in the temporal sense, than the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice. But it's hard to imagine that there's anything pending in the Senate that will have greater long-term consequences for the nation than Alito's confirmation will, just as it's hard to square a lot of campaign tough talk about judicial nominees with the rather complete rollover the Democrats seem prepared to perform now.

Imagine if you'd walked into a candidate's forum in 2000 or 2002 or 2004 and asked a Democrat running for Senate if he or she would stand for the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice who said, unequivocally, that he "personally" believes "very strongly" that there's no constitutional right to an abortion. Imagine if you'd laid out the whole hypothetical: An unpopular president, in the midst of a scandal over whether he violated an act of Congress and the U.S. Constitution by spying on American citizens without warrants, nominates a justice who has written of the "supremacy" of the executive branch. Can you imagine the answer you would have gotten? "This," you would have been told, "is exactly why we need Democrats in the United States Senate."

And yet, at some point in the next few days, Samuel Alito will be confirmed, and it seems almost beyond imagination now that Democrats will muster the strength to do the only thing they can do to stop him. It's a wonder, as the New York Times says today, that some of these senators can still stand up straight. In an unusually ferocious editorial titled "Senators in Need of a Spine," the Times says that Alito's elevation to the Supreme Court will "come courtesy of a president whose grandiose vision of his own powers threatens to undermine the nation's basic philosophy of government -- and a Senate that seems eager to cooperate by rolling over and playing dead." While acknowledging that Democrats who might want to filibuster Alito's nomination might not have the 40 votes needed to fight off a cloture motion, the Times says that's no excuse for not trying. "A filibuster is a radical tool. It's easy to see why Democrats are frightened of it. But from our perspective, there are some things far more frightening. One of them is Samuel Alito on the Supreme Court."

By Tim Grieve

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

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Mary Landrieu D-la. Supreme Court