Cheney says he'd break tie to curtail use of filibusters

Democrats denounced for blocking judicial picks

April 16, 2005|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Vice President Dick Cheney said yesterday that he is prepared to cast the tie-breaking vote, if necessary, to change Senate rules and bar Democrats from using filibusters to block President Bush's judicial nominees.

"I would support an effort to restore the constitutional practices that existed before the Democrats started using the filibuster for judicial appointments," Cheney said in an interview aboard Air Force Two.

If Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist launches an effort to bar filibusters of judicial nominations - a step, known as the "nuclear option," that senior aides say is imminent - Cheney said he, as president of the Senate, would back the move.

"If the decision is made" to change the rules, Cheney said, "I would certainly work with Senator Frist to achieve our objective."

Aboard his vice presidential jetliner, Cheney spoke about the battle over Bush's judicial picks and other top issues facing the administration, among them containing Iran's nuclear ambitions and overhauling Social Security.

He spoke as he returned from a town hall-style event in Pemberton, N.J., aimed at rallying support for Bush's effort to revamp Social Security.

On Iran, Cheney reaffirmed the administration's support for diplomatic efforts by Germany, France and Britain to rein in Tehran's efforts to develop nuclear weapons. But he suggested that there is a limit to how long the United States will wait for those negotiations to bear fruit.

"We share the view that a great many governments do, that the Iranians should not have nuclear weapons," Cheney said, adding that U.S. officials have "made it clear we support" the European-led negotiations.

"I wouldn't specify, at this point, a timetable," Cheney said. "There will be a point at which either they'll close the deal or, if they're not successful, if the Iranians were to begin operating again, obviously we'd have to consider next steps and do that in conjunction with our allies."

Cheney declined to speculate on whether Iran is working toward developing a nuclear arsenal. He said it is too soon to tell whether the Europeans are doing enough to halt such steps. "We won't know until the negotiations are over," Cheney said.

The vice president denounced Democrats' filibusters against Bush's judicial nominees. And he brushed aside the concerns of some, including a handful of Republicans, that changing the rules would trample on minority rights and could backfire for the party in any future Congress controlled by Democrats.

Instead, Cheney said, he worries that allowing Democrats to block judicial nominations - which he repeatedly called "appointments" - would set a precedent that would trample on the Constitution, which delegates to the Senate the right to "advise and consent" on the president's nominees.

"Democrats are the ones who altered the traditional practice," Cheney said. "It's important that that precedent not be allowed to stand."

Democrats have used filibusters, which invoke the right of senators to debate any matter indefinitely unless 60 agree to cut off discussion, to block 10 of Bush's judicial nominees. In a Senate that they control 55-45, Republicans lack the votes necessary to overcome them.

Republicans have used those and other Senate tactics to hold up Democratic nominees for other posts in the past and have tried to use them against Democrats' judicial nominees.

Frist is preparing steps that would effectively force a yes-or-no vote for judges.

To change the rules, the Tennessee senator would probably ask Cheney, the Senate's president, to rule that requiring a supermajority to approve a nomination is unconstitutional. Cheney indicated yesterday that he would take such a position and that in the ensuing vote, he would be willing to break a 50-50 tie to sustain the ruling.

"If you allow that filibuster precedent to stand, in effect you've raised the bar for confirmation of judicial appointments to say that you've now got to have 60 votes to get a judge confirmed. That was never the case before. That should not be the case now," Cheney said.

Democrats threaten to bring the Senate to a halt, refusing to cooperate on even the most mundane legislation, if Republicans move to change the rules. Yesterday, they attacked Frist for his planned appearance on a telecast next week that will denounce the use of filibusters "against people of faith."

"Blurring the line between church and state erodes our Constitution and our democracy. It is a blatant abuse of power," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said in a statement yesterday. He criticized Frist for "participating in something designed to incite divisiveness and encourage contention."

Also yesterday, Cheney distanced himself slightly from House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's decision to have the House investigate the federal judges who ruled in the case of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman who died last month after her husband won a legal battle to have her feeding tube removed.

"I wouldn't interfere with the procedures of the House. They've got to decide how they want to proceed," Cheney said. But he added that "any notion of retribution would be inappropriate."

"I often disagree with judicial decisions, but we have an independent judiciary. It's a sound concept, and I think we'd want to preserve that," Cheney said.

DeLay apologized this week for suggesting that judges who refused to intervene to reconnect Shiavo's feeding tube should face consequences for their actions. But the Texas congressman called on the Judiciary Committee to scrutinize the judges' decisions.

Cheney, who with Bush is encouraging Democrats to put forth suggestions for shoring up Social Security, said those who join the effort will be lauded by Republicans.

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