The Nuclear Option
March 30, 2005
By Katherine Brengle
some time now, Senator Bill Frist has been pushing the Republican
Senate majority toward adoption of the so-called "nuclear option."
The nuclear option refers to "a seldom-used, complicated and highly
controversial parliamentary maneuver in which Republicans could
seek a ruling from the chamber's presiding officer, presumably Vice
President Cheney, that filibusters against judicial nominees are
unconstitutional" (Washington Post, 12/13/04).
At this point, only a 51 vote simple majority would be required
to uphold the ruling - as opposed to the normal 67 votes needed
to change Senate rules or the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster.
In short, the current Republican majority could force the "nuclear
option" ruling, and then uphold it themselves, and then abuse the
unlimited power it guarantees them (at least until 2006) to do,
more or less, whatever they want until the tides shift and they
no longer have a majority. The measure would require no bipartisan
support and would give the Republican majority carte blanche to
confirm judges who would otherwise have very little chance of confirmation.
While this sounds very political and complicated and irrelevant
to the lives of everyday Americans, it is not. Adoption of the nuclear
option has, potentially, very far reaching consequences.
Just this week, Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist
was readmitted to the hospital. Several months ago, Rehnquist was
hospitalized and diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and has been very
ill since. His retirement (or, less savory, death) is imminent.
When Rehnquist leaves, which will almost certainly (barring a miraculous
recovery) be fairly soon, George W. Bush will be in the unique position
to nominate a replacement justice.
According to the Washington Post, lawyers and former administration
officials who have spoken about such a nomination with West Wing
aides say that Bush is headed toward nominating a "strong ideological
conservative" to replace Rehnquist.
Without the filibuster option, which leaves a small amount of
power in the hands of the Senate minority, the majority will have
complete control over the next lifetime Supreme Court Justice.
It is very convenient that Frist is trying to railroad the Democratic
minority at this particular point in time. With a very ill Justice
and Presidential aspirations for 2008, Senator Frist seems to be
trying to appease cultural conservatives who might otherwise choose
an even more conservative candidate for the Republican nomination.
Let me explain a little more clearly.
If Frist is successful getting a nuclear option ruling, the Republican
majority will be able to confirm a very conservative judge to the
Supreme Court to replace Rehnquist. Once there is a strong conservative
majority on the court, then conservatives have a much better shot
than they have had in the past at getting Roe v. Wade turned over.
If Frist is the architect who builds this house, he'll have a strong
foundation to stand on in the Republican primaries for the 2008
Presidential election. He'll have a better connection to the socially
conservative base that has become a strong component of the Republican
Yesterday, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal to reinstate an
Idaho law which would require parental consent for women under the
age of 18 to receive abortion services except under the most dire
of circumstances. The law's narrow interpretation of "emergency"
abortions made the law very risky to young women who need immediate
medical assistance, and was thus ruled unconstitutional. The lower
court considered the law unconstitutional on the basis that it flew
in the face of Roe v. Wade and made little sense in light of the
fact that young people can be given a wide variety of other emergency
medical services without parental consent.
With an ideologically conservative majority in the Supreme Court,
rulings based on precedent and constitutionality will become a thing
of the past. Rulings will be based on conservative political leanings
and possibly religious persuasions rather than straightforward interpretation
of the law, as it is written.
It is vitally important for pro-choice Americans to be very aware
of the nuclear option possibility, because it has the potential
to change reproductive rights for millions of American women for
a great many years, regardless of who ends up in the White House
in 2008 and regardless of whether the Republicans maintain a majority
in the Senate past 2006.
Sometimes we ignore what we see as "politics as usual" in Washington
because it all sounds so abstract and the effect on all of us as
citizens is clouded by pretentious language and complicated rhetoric.
Average Americans have been excluded from the political process,
and we accept that exclusion because half the time we can't understand
what these guys on the Hill are talking about anyway.
Well, this time the "guys on the Hill" are making a play they
hope you won't understand. They are couching the nuclear
option in complicated language and trying to keep you away by making
it all sound as boring as possible.
Don't take the bait.
Katherine Brengle is a 23-year old writer, college student,
peace activist, and host of the Bristol County Democracy for America
Meetup. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.