With the Senate, the House and the White House all under Republican control beginning in January, not only will issues of concern to progressives be far less likely to get discussed in Capitol Hill committee rooms but activists will have a much harder time making their voices heard in Washington. Here’s a preview of what’s ahead in three key areas. –The Editors
The single biggest consequence of the new Republican majority in the Senate will be the confirmation of a herd of extremists to the federal bench. The flooding of the judiciary with activist, antichoice and Christian right judges was slowed as long as the Democrats held a 10-to-9 majority on the Judiciary Committee. Now the restraining dam has broken. Two days after the election a staffer for a liberal Democrat on the committee lamented to me, “This is a new world, a sea change. We are all still reeling. Our only hope now is to pick our shots and filibuster against the worst of the worst.”
At a public hearing of the lame-duck Judiciary Committee, the incoming chairman, Orrin Hatch, gloated, “I’m quite sure that things will change markedly.” An hour later two extremely conservative Bush nominees were approved: Dennis Shedd, who had never ruled in favor of a plaintiff claiming discrimination in almost twelve years on the bench; and Professor Michael McConnell. Shedd was confirmed after nine Democrats voted against him. The tenth, Joseph Biden, absented himself from the roll call in a parliamentary contrivance to allow confirmation–an action that suggests how many weak links there are in the potential filibuster strategy. Shedd was later approved by the full Senate.
Even before this craven choreography, Ted Kennedy was telling liberal interest groups that the only way to stop some of the fanatics is through an all-out grassroots mobilization by labor unions, the NAACP and the women’s movement–organizations that can move real constituencies.
The stampede of Scalia clones will begin in January, when the GOP officially takes charge. Bush and Senate Republican leader Trent Lott now say they will resubmit the names of two appeals court nominees already voted down by the Judiciary Committee: Priscilla Owen and Charles Pickering, both for the Fifth Circuit. Democrats should interpret their renomination as an affront to the Senate’s prerogatives. The ideas, opinions and decisions of Owen and Pickering have not changed over the past six months; only control of the Senate has.
There is a mountain of evidence that Owen and Pickering are “the worst of the worst.” Beyond his fringe ideology, Pickering has severe ethics disabilities: This year he asked lawyers who practice before him to write letters in support of his nomination, which is improper coercion. Even worse, in 1994 he contacted the Justice Department, as a sitting judge, to lobby prosecutors to request a lenient sentence for a defendant accused of burning a cross in front of, and firing a gun into, the home of a biracial couple. Owen, now on the Texas Supreme Court, is so hostile to abortion that she was the first woman that Senator Dianne Feinstein ever voted against for a judicial confirmation. In addition to Owen and Pickering, there will be votes on other “worst of the worst” nominees like Carolyn Kuhl and Jeffrey Sutton, both up for appeals court seats in situations where they can tip the philosophical balance.