Uncertain 'Nuclear' Reality

No one knows for sure what the political effect will be if the minority loses the right to filibuster judicial nominees. A look at what may happen if the Senate's exercises the "nuclear option."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

While Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson said we can't predict the filibuster outcome, that hasn't stopped some in Washington from speculating what might change if the nuclear option is exercised. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON reporting:

If the so-called nuclear option passes and the filibuster for judicial nominees is abolished, there is consensus about a few aspects of the fallout. In the short term, more conservative judges will be confirmed. Life in the Senate will probably begin to look a lot more like life in the House of Representatives with the majority party, the Republicans, wielding much more power and the Democratic minority holding on to much less. President Bush will be able to claim victory and so, says political scientist Ross Baker, will Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist who is laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign in 2008.

Mr. ROSS BAKER (Political Scientist): It gives Frist an enormous boost in terms of his standing with the Republican base. With that party's most conservative vote, he'll be really proclaimed something of a hero. Now whether or not that translates into votes for him in New Hampshire is really quite a different thing. That's a long way off, but certainly his stock will have risen and it's something he can trade on really quite openly.

LIASSON: If Republicans succeed in making judicial confirmations possible with 51 votes instead of the current 60, they will have won a significant victory in the epic struggle over the courts and that will be very gratifying to the Republican Party's base. Grover Norquist is a veteran conservative activist.

Mr. GROVER NORQUIST (Veteran Conservative Activist): Eventually as more liberal judges or activist judges retire or pass away and are replaced by judges confirmed by a Republican Senate, that court, the Supreme Court in particular but the courts in general, will drift to the right.

LIASSON: In addition to strengthening the hand of the Republican majority in the Senate, Norquist believes that the end of the judicial filibuster will so demoralize Democrats that they will become a more compliant minority. He's compared it to what happens when you nuder a pet.

Mr. NORQUIST: If the nuclear option passes, then the Democrats can't stop judges, and when you can't do something, you kind of quit caring about it or at least quit fighting 'cause you don't want to throw up a lot of struggle. It's not going to accomplish anything. So it'll make for much better behaved Democratic minority in the Senate.

LIASSON: To leading Democratic activists, like Harold Ickes, that is a ridiculous notion.

Mr. HAROLD ICKES (Democratic Activist): It will be demoralizing, but if it comes to pass, we will have to deal with it. I could see the Democrats becoming more unified and more aggressive and more of an opposition party even than they are now which may in the long run redound to their benefit. They may be forced to take clear and more precise positions on issues and distinguish themselves more from the Republicans just because they are the minority.

LIASSON: And, Ickes says, because Democrats will perceive the end of the filibuster as a great injustice, it will only energize his party's grass roots.

Mr. ICKES: Oh, I think it gins up the Democratic base. I think our fund raising will do very well. Our direct mail will do very well, our Internet will do very well. So I think from a very parochial point of view, it's helpful.

LIASSON: And Ickes warns that the fallout from the nuclear option has potential downsides for Republicans as well. Once they've done away with the judicial filibuster, they will have more complete control over Congress and it will be harder for Republicans to blame Democrats for any failures. Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster, also worries that without the hurdle of 60 votes for judges, it will be easier for his party to overreach.

Mr. ANTHONY FABRIZIO (Republican Pollster): If it happens and then Republicans start pushing through judges that have had some really serious decisions that were outside of the mainstream now getting pushed through on a 51-49 vote, the Democrats will hang if they're smart. We'd do the same thing if it were the other side. I mean, the Democrats would hang any bad judges around our necks, and they're going to be the poster child for why the nuclear option was bad.

LIASSON: Of course, that scenario could take a long time to play out. In the short term, the conventional wisdom is that only the activists on both sides care about judges and about the nuclear option, but Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster, disagrees.

Mr. PETER HART (Democratic Pollster): The public cares that the Congress is not working and they perceive that. There is this sense that somehow this whole thing has fallen apart and the nuclear option is all part of this. The fallout of this is really going to be more bitter partisanship and a much more divided sense of the Congress. So what the country really is trying to say is, `Get your act together and start working together.'

LIASSON: And if they don't?

Mr. HART: What I've seen over 25 years is when it isn't working, the incumbent party pays a price. We've paid a price in 1994; we can pay a price in 2006.

LIASSON: Whether anyone pays a political price depends a lot on whether the nuclear option passes and how both parties behave after it does.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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