Skip to content

Not All Conservatives Think Going ‘Nuclear’ Is a Good Idea

Nobody ever accused Bill Armstrong of being an ideological squish. Or a liberal. [IMGCAP(1)]

Maybe that’s why it’s so noteworthy that the former two-term United States Senator from Colorado — who was about as conservative as any Member during his 18 years in Congress — says that he is “deeply skeptical” about the Republican effort to eliminate the filibuster during the process of confirming judges.

Armstrong, who served in the Colorado Legislature and in the U.S. House of Representatives before serving two terms in the Senate, told me recently that while he thinks there should be a vote on President Bush’s judges, he also believes that Senate Republicans have moved too far, too fast on the so-called “nuclear” option.

“Having served in the majority and in the minority, I know that it’s worthwhile to have the minority empowered. As a conservative, I think there is a value to having a constraint on the majority,” he says. Armstrong notes that conservatives would surely like to be able to filibuster federal judges appointed by a Democratic president who favor gay marriage and other liberal policies.

Armstrong, who almost certainly would have been re-elected in 1990 had he sought a third term, says he understands the “tremendous frustration” that Republicans and conservatives feel about getting Bush-selected judges approved. But he doesn’t believe that Senate Republicans have exhausted all options when it comes to getting the president’s judicial nominees confirmed by the Senate.

“Before making an important change, I wouldn’t rush into it until I had an opportunity to test the will of the people on both sides,” he says. “We haven’t seen any attempt on the part of either side to make any sacrifice, whether it involves missing a fundraiser or missing an opportunity to go back home for the weekend.”

What kind of sacrifice is Armstrong calling for? He suggests that the Republicans force Senate Democrats to carry on an old-fashioned filibuster.

Armstrong believes an old-fashioned filibuster would test the will of each side and focus the public’s attention on both matters — on the judges themselves and on the Democrats’ tactic of blocking Senate business. He believes that only after the Republicans exhaust all options at their disposal should they even consider something as rash as the nuclear option.

Armstrong may or may not be correct in believing that bringing back a real, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” filibuster would resolve the judicial stalemate. But it’s probably worth a shot.

I’ll admit that one of the refreshing things about Armstrong’s comments is the principled consistency of his views. Neither of the two parties can be accused of such consistency.

Over the past 30 years I’ve heard Democrats (when they were in the Senate majority, of course) rant about GOP filibusters and about how awful it was that the minority was trying to frustrate the will of the majority. And I’ve heard Republicans (when they were in the minority) talk about the importance of the filibuster to protect the rights of the minority and to protect against the tyranny of the majority.

Now, the situation is reversed, and lo and behold, the positions of the two parties are reversed. Suddenly, Republicans are outraged at the Democrats’ tactics, and Democrats are outraged that Republicans find their tactics anti-majoritarian.

Republicans never brought up this constitutional objection to the filibuster against judges until relatively recently, when apparently they “discovered” it. And Democrats, for all of their bluster about judicial temperament and “mainstream” views, are simply trying to prevent Bush from filling the Supreme Court with conservatives, if and when vacancies for the highest court occur.

It’s unclear whether Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has the votes to sustain a ruling from the chair that would allow him to call votes on judges with simply a majority vote. Enough GOP moderates and institutionalists are concerned about the change in procedure to create some doubt.

But Frist appears to have backed himself into a corner now.

“The one thing that isn’t an option for Frist is a retreat,” is how one GOP strategist put it to me. The Majority Leader can’t even compromise his way out of a confrontation without angering conservatives and looking foolish.

Most conservatives are so angry and frustrated at the Democrats’ tactics that they are egging the Majority Leader on. But Armstrong has a very different view.

“I’ll bet they’ll rue the day if they do this,” he says.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

Recent Stories

Figures, Dobson win runoffs in redrawn Alabama district

Fundraising shows Democrats prepping for battle in both chambers

Senate readies for Mayorkas impeachment showdown

Panel pitches NDAA plan to improve troops’ quality of life

Biden pitches tax plan in Pennsylvania as Trump stews in court

Supreme Court questions use of statute against Jan. 6 defendants