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Up or Down Vote: Death of a GOP Talking Point

July 22, 2007

On Thursday morning, July 19th, the beloved GOP talking point "up or down vote" was officially declared dead. Its demise was little noticed in the aftermath of the Senate Republicans' successful all-night filibuster to block the Reed-Levin bill seeking to begin U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq. "Up or down vote" was killed by a desperate Republican Party trying to obstruct Democratic accomplishments at any cost in advance of the 2008 elections. And so far, the GOP seems to be getting away with the crime.

Thursday's 52-47 vote was hardly the first time Democrats in the 110th Congress failed to get the needed 60 votes to end debate and bring a bill to a vote. An analysis by McClatchy showed that Republicans have already resorted to the filibuster 42 times and on track to block Senate action over 150 times this term, shattering the previous record by almost a factor of three. As Robert Borosage detailed, while Democrats in the House have kept their promise to pass a raft of legislation including Medicare drug negotiation, the minimum wage, student loan reform and more, Republicans in the Senate have stymied overwhelmingly popular bills at every turn:

"Bills with majority support -- raising the minimum wage, ethics reform, a date to remove troops from Iraq, revoking oil subsidies and putting the money into renewable energy, fulfilling the 9/11 commission recommendations on homeland security--get blocked because they can't garner 60 votes to overcome a filibuster."

Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-MS) has been one of the essential architects of the filibuster fever in the Grand Obstruction Party. While decrying that "the Senate is spiraling into the ground to a degree that I have never seen before" and "all modicum of courtesy is going out the window," Lott is also brutally frank about his strategy to prevent any Democratic wins come hell or high water:

"The strategy of being obstructionist can work or fail. So far it's working for us."

Sadly, so far Lott appears to be right. Polls put Congress' approval ratings as low as 25%, reaching levels below the now wildly unpopular President Bush. Aided by media coverage distorting the GOP skullduggery, Americans seemingly blame Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and Congressional Democrats for the failure to change course in Iraq as well as the gamut of stalled legislation. And in virtually every case, it was the unified Republicans' refusal to allow and up or down vote that produced the impasse.

Of course, it wasn't always this way. The GOP mantra of "up or down vote" only passed into history when the Republicans passed into minority status after the 2006 mid-term elections. Then, the slogan that was so central to the Republican war on the judiciary became dispensable.
Despite winning Senate confirmation for over 95% of his nominees, it was President Bush who in 2003 fired the warning shot at Democrats who threatened to filibuster a handful of his most extreme - and unqualified - judicial selections. After Republicans successfully blocked confirmation of dozens of judicial nominees from the outgoing President Clinton in 2000, Bush had the gall in 2001 to urge "urged the Senate to rise above the bitterness of the past and again asked that every judicial nominee receive a timely up or down vote." With his nomination of Miguel Estrada facing Democratic opposition, Bush turned to his trusted sound bite:

"The Senate has a solemn responsibility to exercise its constitutional advice and consent function and hold up or down votes on judicial nominees within a reasonable time after nomination. I ask that the Senate take action, including adoption of a permanent rule, to ensure timely up or down votes on judicial nominations both now and in the future, no matter who is President or which party controls the Senate."

As the battle over Supreme Court nominations heated up, Republicans in Congress and their amen corner in the press and in the churches took up President Bush's banner of "up or down vote." Then Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN), who had filibustered Clinton nominee Richaed Paez in 2000, penned a 2005 USA Today op-ed titled "It's Time for Up or Down Vote" in which he asked:

"Will we permit a fair, up-or-down vote on every judicial nominee? Or, will we create an unprecedented 60-vote requirement for the confirmation of President Bush's judges?"

Frist's colleagues were quick to endorse the so-called "nuclear option", a radical change to Senate rules barring the use of the long-traditional filibuster as a parliamentary tool in the judicial confirmation process. The very same leaders of the Republicans' winning filibuster last week over the issue of war in Iraq were only too happy to end its use in 2005. While an aide to current Senator Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that the Kentucky Republican "always has and continues to fully support the use of what has become known as the '[nuclear]' option," Trent Lott proclaimed:

"[Filibustering] is wrong. It's not supportable under the Constitution. And if they insist on persisting with these filibusters, I'm perfectly prepared to blow the place up."

The religious right led an army of conservative pressure groups in the crusade for the "up or down vote." Hoping to ensure the installation of a new generation of right-wing ideologues on the Supreme Court, Christian groups including the Family Research Council, the Eagle Forum, Focus on the Family and the Catholic League held the Justice Sunday I and Justice Sunday II events in 2005. Simulcast to hundreds of churches nationwide, these shock troops of the GOP got down on their knees for the up or down vote. As one of their flyers proclaimed:

"THE FILIBUSTER AGAINST PEOPLE OF FAITH - The filibuster was once abused to protect racial bias, and now it is being used against people of faith."

So successful were the Republicans in the confirmations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito that their "up or down vote" weapon was deployed in other battles. For example, President Bush called for the line-item veto and "up or down votes" of budget items he would excise with a stroke of his pen. Early on, Bush had also called for fast-track authority with up or down Senate votes on new trade agreements. And an angry President Bush cited the failure to receive an up or down vote as the driver the resignation of the recess appointed and now disgraced UN ambassador John Bolton. Meanwhile, Bill Frist joined the act in 2006 over the immigration issue:

"That's why I strongly support the Secure Fence Act of 2006...and that's why I'm bringing this crucial legislation to the floor of the Senate this week for an up-or-down vote."

Alas, long before Senate Republicans administered the death blow this week, "up or down vote" was already on life support as a result of the Harriet Miers debacle. As Kos detailed in October 2005, Senate Republicans desperate to derail the Miers' nomination to the Supreme Court quickly abandoned their "up or down vote" religion. All of the usual GOP suspects - Hutchison, Kyl, Hatch, Santorum, Lott, Cornyn, Dole, Sessions and more - twisted the knife in Miers' back to ensure that her name never came to the Senate floor for an up or down vote. Ironically, it was Harry Reid who pointed out the Republican Party believes in the up or down vote, except when it doesn't:

"The radical right wing of the Republican Party killed the Harriet Miers nomination," said Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), who had recommended that Bush consider her for the high court. "Apparently, Ms. Miers did not satisfy those who would pack the court with rigid ideologues."

Fast forward to July 2007. Defeated in 2006, devastated in the polls and facing calamity in 2008, the Republican Party is reprising the blocking strategy Bill Kristol successfully deployed to derail the Clinton health care plan in 1993 and 1994. Then, the GOP feared the passage of a health care plan could lead to a Democratic majority for a decade. Now, with the Senate GOP filibustering virtually everything Democrats propose and President Bush committed to vetoing anything that might make it through Congress, the Republican Party is trying to forestall electoral disaster once again.
Up or down vote, rest in peace.
UPDATE: The resurrection of "Up or Down Vote" didn't require the GOP to retake the Senate. As the Washington Post reports this morning, right-wing groups are once again calling for up or down votes on a handful of President Bush's judicial nominees and threatening to shut down the Senate unless they get them.

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Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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