The Missing Man in the Filibuster Fight President Bush has been missing in the debate over the judicial filibuster but he and his top advisers are behind the action on Capitol Hill, David Greene says in the latest Pennsylvania Avenue column.
NPR logo The Missing Man in the Filibuster Fight

The Missing Man in the Filibuster Fight

As the Senate engages in its grudge match over judicial nominees and the filibuster, Americans watching cable television have seen lots of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.

The news has also featured plenty of moderate senators working overtime to find a compromise. The media have served up experts explaining the filibuster and its place in history as well as feature stories on the nominees themselves.

But as Washington has been rapt with this latest Big Story, the lead actor has been conspicuously missing from the stage. Where is George W. Bush?

In recent days, the White House has distanced itself from the Senate wrangling, and while the president has been out in public this week, he has barely mentioned the biggest story in town.

In a speech to Republican donors Tuesday night, Mr. Bush made glancing reference to the controversy. Repeating a well-worn line from the campaign, he said the Senate "has a duty to promptly consider each of these nominees on the Senate floor, discuss and debate their qualifications, and then give them the up-or-down vote they deserve. "

The next day, as the battle raged on the Hill, the president gave a foreign policy speech with no mention of judges or the filibuster. On the day after, visiting Milwaukee, he focused on Social Security and did not mention the filibuster storm back in Washington.

A White House spokesman, Trent Duffy, was asked by reporters about the debate gripping the Senate. He made it seem like some spat up on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, over which Mr. Bush has no control.

"As far as the proceedings in the House and the Senate," Duffy said, "those are determined by the leaders in both houses."

So is the president just an observer in all this? Hardly.

To offer a tad of background, Frist and his colleagues are threatening to change chamber rules to block Democrats from filibustering federal court nominees. The result would be that nominees could be guaranteed confirmation with 51 votes, as opposed to 60. That's a pivotal difference, given Republicans have a 55-45 majority in the Senate.

Republicans say they must preserve the discretion a president was given in the Constitution to name judges, and that to do so requires giving every nominee an up-or-down vote on the floor.

Democrats say Republicans are threatening the principle of checks and balances and shattering longstanding Senate rules, not to mention any remaining spirit of consensus or willingness to compromise.

But whichever side you take, one fact is indisputable: George W. Bush picked this fight.

The Senate has confirmed more than 200 of his judicial choices, including the majority of his nominees to the appeals court level. But in his first term, democrats also blocked 10 appeals court nominees, using filibusters to prevent a vote after branding them conservative ideologues outside the mainstream.

Mr. Bush then made the key move, one he knew would bring the Senate to the brink of major battle: He decided to re-nominate seven of the judges who had been blocked.

This decision by the White House to provoke the filibuster debate should be no surprise.

Since taking office, the president has said consistently that he wants to make sure powers of the presidency are not eroded under his watch.

Vice President Dick Cheney has seemed even more devoted to that principle, and to restoring what he sees as the weakening of those powers in recent decades. If anything, the vice president has been even more outspoken on this issue than his boss.

"I've been around town for 34 years," Cheney told Fox News in 2002. "Time after time after time, administrations have traded away the authority of the president to do his job. We're not going to do that in this administration. The president's bound and determined to defend those principles and to pass on this office, his and mine, to future generations in better shape then we found it."

It's worth considering Cheney's past. In his early years in this town, he served as chief of staff in President Gerald Ford's White House. It was a time, in the aftermath of Watergate, when Cheney learned what it's like to serve in a weakened executive branch beset by an aggressive Congress.

Members of both parties have made clear that the filibuster fight could be an epic battle with long-lasting implications for presidential prerogative. It's a battle the Bush White House does not want to lose.

But the level of determination shown by the White House may have as much to do with politics as it does with safeguarding presidential power.

Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's political maestro, has said he is on a mission to make the Republican Party dominant for as many future election cycles as possible.

As Rove said at a lunch with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and several other papers after the last election, "there are big swaths of the country where Democrats are becoming less and less acceptable. You've seen it already happen… in prairie states and in the South."

To solidify those gains, Rove went after social conservatives and evangelicals in the 2004 race. They have been an important swing bloc in every recent close election, with perhaps the prime example being the 2004 re-election of President Bush. Many analysts believe a strong turnout among social conservatives delivered the close-fought state of Ohio to Mr. Bush, putting him over the top in the Electoral College.

Conservatives whose agenda begins with outlawing abortion and gay marriage typically view the fight over judges as a proxy battle over those issues. Indeed, Rove likes to point out that whenever the president brought up his judicial nominees on the stump and complained that Democrats were blocking them, it proved to be his biggest applause line.

As Rove tries to make sure social conservatives remain reliably Republican for the foreseeable future, the fight over the filibuster is vitally important.

At the same time, the White House has calculated that its best contribution to winning that fight can be made through private contacts with individual senators. So don't expect to see the president stumping for the nuclear option in the next several days.

But when the moment of truth comes next week and Bill Frist finds out how many votes he has, the man presiding over the Senate with a big gavel and a tie-breaking vote will be Dick Cheney -- the living embodiment of the White House's stake in the outcome.