San Diego Union Tribune

May 25, 2005    

Feinstein, Boxer hint at erosion of Senate civility
Democrats say they feel bullied by Republican rule

By Dana Wilkie

WASHINGTON – California's two senators may have voiced delight about the Monday compromise that averted a showdown on the filibuster, but the GOP's threat to abolish one of the most potent political weapons available to Democrats clearly left sore feelings toward Republicans and the White House.

"Today, there is not really active consultation by this administration in most cases," Sen. Dianne Feinstein told her colleagues this week. "Instead, there appears to be a kind of disregard for the opinions of all Democratic senators."

Sen. Barbara Boxer had similar sentiments, telling her colleagues that Republicans and President Bush have demonstrated "an arrogance of power." Republicans, she said in a Senate speech last week, "did not get enough of what they want . . . and they are throwing a fit."

A partisan fight over the confirmations of federal appellate court nominees Priscilla Owen and Janice Rogers Brown evolved in recent weeks into an arguably more important battle over whether to preserve the filibuster, a Senate tradition allowing a minority of lawmakers to stage unlimited debate that blocks a vote on something, or someone, they oppose.

Feinstein and Boxer, both part of the Senate's Democratic minority, argued that doing away with the filibuster would create such ill feelings that the chamber would become a rancorous place ruled by passions rather than reason.

"The Senate will most certainly face a loss of civility, a loss of respect for differences," Feinstein said in a Senate speech Monday. "Political messages will overwhelm substantive policy, and political potshots will drive our debates, rather than the best interest of the American people."

Meanwhile, Boxer sought to portray the president as something of a spoiled autocrat by noting the Senate had approved 208 of his judicial nominees and rejected 10.

"This is a 95 percent success rate," Boxer said. "I ask the people of this country to think about what it would mean in their lives if they got 95 percent of what they wanted."

On Monday, Senate leaders struck a compromise: Democrats agreed to stand aside and allow swift votes on three circuit court nominees, including Owen and Brown, and to withhold filibusters on future circuit court and Supreme Court nominees except in "extraordinary circumstances." In return, the GOP agreed it would not change Senate rules to prevent filibusters on judicial nominees.

Feinstein and Boxer have argued that Owen and Brown are too conservative for lifetime appointments to the federal bench. While each called Monday's compromise "a victory" for Senate tradition, their remarks in the past days revealed long-simmering sentiments about how the GOP has operated in Congress and the White House over the years.

"Checks and balances are not new," Feinstein told her colleagues. "Our country's 200-year tradition of working through our differences is not new. The need for consultation is not new. . . . What is new is the majority party's decision that if you win an election, you should have absolute power."

Some Republicans have suggested that Feinstein and Boxer acted hypocritically, because in the past, each called on Republicans to stop delaying tactics that prevented the Senate from voting on some of former President Clinton's judicial nominees.

On Sept. 16, 1999, Feinstein said "a nominee is entitled to a vote. Vote them up; vote them down," she said when conservatives tried to block votes on two nominees to California's 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. "If we don't like them, we can vote against them. That is the honest thing to do. If there are things in their background, in their abilities that don't pass muster, vote no."

On Jan. 28, 1998, the day the Senate confirmed Barry Silverman to the 9th Circuit, Boxer said that whether "the delays are on the Republican side or the Democratic side, let these names come up, let us have debate, let us vote."

Feinstein acknowledged that six years ago, when Senate Republicans tried to block the Clinton judicial nominees, "many of us . . . were frustrated."

"At that time, I urged my colleagues to allow a vote," Feinstein said in her speech Monday. "However, I did not advocate breaking the (Senate) rules . . . as a way to force Republicans to their knees."

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