Sunday, May 22, 2005

Senate Democrats who oppose Republican attempts to forbid the use of the filibuster to kill judicial nominations were calling for its elimination not that many years ago.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts has condemned Majority Leader Bill Frist’s plan to end the unlimited debate tactic that Democrats have employed to prevent many of President Bush’s court appointments from getting a vote.

Mr. Kennedy last week defended the use of the filibuster to block Mr. Bush’s nominees, telling CBS’ ?Face the Nation? that ?you’re talking about an institution, established by the Founding Fathers, whose rules have guided us? for more than 200 years.

But Mr. Kennedy had a different view in the late 1990s when he and 18 other Democrats sought to abolish the filibuster.

The rules-change proposal at that time, offered by Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, would have amended the Senate rules to allow a simple majority to end any filibuster against a bill or a presidential nomination.

Taking the same position now being expressed by Mr. Frist, Mr. Kennedy said on the Senate floor on Feb. 3, 1998: ?We owe it to Americans across the country to give these nominees a vote. If our Republican colleagues don’t like them, vote against them. But give them a vote.?

As early as 2000, Mr. Kennedy continued to vigorously voice his objection to the filibuster rule to block nominations, saying, ?After the necessary time for inquiry, [the Senate] should vote him up or vote him down.?

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat and a master practitioner of the Senate rules, also has threatened to change the Senate’s rules by a simple majority vote, just as Mr. Frist is moving to do now.

In 1979, when the Democrats were in charge and Mr. Byrd was majority leader, he prevented a looming filibuster by threatening to force a rules change if opponents did not agree to a vote.

He argued at the time that ?the first Senate, which met in 1789, approved 19 rules by a majority vote. Those rules have been changed from time to time.? He also forced rule changes governing debate in 1980 and 1987.

During sometimes-heated debate in the past week, Mr. Byrd defended the Senate’s filibuster rule, which requires 60 votes to break, as a sacrosanct part of the chamber’s procedures that should not and could not be changed without violating the Senate’s historic checks and balances on majority rule.

But in 1979, when the Democrats were wielding power, he said, ?This Congress is not obliged to be bound by the dead hand of the past.?

In a statement Friday, Mr. Kennedy’s office denied that the senator has changed his view on the filibuster.

?Of course there have been many times in the past when he opposed the Republicans’ blocking of a particular bill or nominee and urged his colleagues to vote to close debate and proceed with an up-or-down vote. But that’s different from breaking the rules to change the rules in order to get to a vote,? his spokesman said.

Sen. Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, who voted 10 years ago to end the filibuster but now defends its use to block judicial nominations, has a different answer for his change of heart.

?My view has changed because of the abuse of power by those running the Senate,? he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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