WASHINGTON - Many former senators are relieved they won't have to enter the controversial showdown over a ban on the filibuster of judicial nominees this week. But even so, some had to wonder what they would do if they still were in office. Though their opinions differ, most agree that the vote never would have happened in the Senate of yesterday.
In interviews with The Sun, some former senators cautioned about changing the Senate's rules in ways that could diminish its future powers and do harm to its long-established traditions. Others empathized with the senators leading the "nuclear option" against the filibuster and criticized the partisan conditions that led to it. Another handful sounded mystified that their successors had not reached a compromise.
Before this week's anticipated vote, these former senators chimed in:
Alan K. Simpson, Wyoming Republican, senator 1979-1997
"To me there is a very definite unfairness to requiring 60 votes to confirm a justice of the court, but the tough part is, anytime you start the engine of something like this, you can get into trouble. It reminds me of an old Rube Goldberg cartoon where there was this great wheel with hobnail boots on it, and you press a button and the wheel goes around and first it would kick your adversary but eventually it will kick you. That's what will happen some future time, I hope far in the future, when the Republicans will be in the minority and the Democrats will present a judicial nominee who probably makes Lenin look like a conservative. And the Republicans are going to whine and snort and say, `This is terrible.' And the Democrats will say, `You dug this hole. Now we're glad to throw some dirt on it.'"
John B. Breaux, Louisiana Democrat, 1987-2005
"I would clearly try to cut a deal. This is a situation that cries out for someone to stand up on the floor of the Senate and say, `Stop the insanity and reach an agreement.' ... I mean, this is grown men and women who are not able to make the system work like it's supposed to, like it has in the past. But what's happening is senators are being bludgeoned by outside forces - PR groups, right-wing groups, left-wing groups, all of them saying, `Don't compromise. Just go over the edge.'"
Warren B. Rudman, New Hampshire Republican, 1980-1993
"I will lament this vote if it succeeds. People tend to look at the history of the Senate and how it functions, and my bottom line is that the Founding Fathers wanted a true balance of power, and this would shift the balance of power to the White House. ... My sense is, thinking back on it, that I don't think you could have gotten 51 votes on this sort of thing in the past. No question the Senate has become more ideological, more partisan, and that's not in the long-term interest of the country. ... I cast a lot of tough votes, and I can say nobody is anxious to cast this vote. But I would have clearly voted against it. ... "
Dennis W. DeConcini, Arizona Democrat, 1977-1995
"If it breaks down here, it will be quite historic. It will be truly a historic change - not just a blip on the radar screen. There is a comity, a way of working together in the Senate. It's a special place where I was privileged to serve, and these kinds of things fray that badly, and I will just be saddened if members of the Senate compromise the importance of the Senate for somebody's short-term political objectives. ... Those that are in the middle, as I was as a Democrat, struggle with these things because they are not as ideologically attached to the issue. ... It is sold to them by their leaders on the basis of, `Lookit, this is a leadership vote and we need you,' but, in fact, it's much more than that, and they know that."
Clifford Hansen, Wyoming Republican, 1967-1978
"Being a Republican, we were the minority party, and I suspect there are some similarities between our situation then and those that the Democrats find themselves in today. I am sure that it would have concerned me if there were limits on the filibuster. When I was in the Senate, the Democrats were in control, and we had made a lot of friends with the Democratic Party, and I realized then that if I were going to get anything done, I had to reach out and establish some real friendships with members on the other side."
Robert J. Kerrey, Nebraska Democrat, 1989-2001
"If I were there, I'd say, `If you want an up-and-down vote on the judges, let's get an up-and-down vote on everything.' If you're going to end the filibuster, let's end it not just for appellate judges, let's end it on the minimum wage, let's end it on expansion of health care, let's end it on any number of things where the Republicans would want to retain their right to have a filibuster. ... The big thing here is, the leaders have got to stand up to the president. You may be a Republican or a Democrat, but the legislative and executive branches are two different entities, and they need to tell the president, `I'd like to help you, but I'm not going to change the rules of the Senate in order for you to get your way.' I don't know what I'd be doing if I were in the Senate now. Probably taking anti-anxiety medication."
Sun researchers Sarah Gehring and Elizabeth Lukes contributed to this article.