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Black Caucus Sees Race as Factor in Filibusters, Eyes Rules Change

The Congressional Black Caucus is fed up with Republican filibusters of President Barack Obama’s nominees, which several black lawmakers said they believe are motivated in part by race.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid indicated Tuesday that it’s time to take action after Republicans blocked another judicial nominee Monday, and he’ll have strong backing from black House Democrats who will meet Wednesday to plot a strategy for moving stalled African-American nominees through the Senate.

“I don’t know what’s gonna be discussed, but I know what needs to be discussed,” said CBC member G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C. “We’ve got to seriously address the abuse of the filibuster rule in the Senate.”

CBC members are still reeling from the three-week-old stalled nomination of their colleague, Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency — and are also raw from Monday’s filibuster of an African-American judge, Robert L. Wilkins, to serve on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Though Republicans insist the filibusters are tied to legitimate concerns about the need for additional judges on the D.C. Circuit, or, in the case of Watt, on his qualifications for the job, CBC Chairwoman Marcia L. Fudge on Monday suggested that race and other factors were at play, citing the number of minorities and women who have been filibustered.

And other black lawmakers insisted Tuesday that race is a factor.

“It’s not the controlling point but it’s a factor, no question about it,” Butterfield said. “The fact is, no sitting member of Congress in 150 years has been denied an up-or-down vote on a confirmation. Race has got to be a factor here.”

“It goes without saying,” added Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., another senior member of the CBC. He called Republicans the descendants of Confederates.

“No one makes a big deal of it, but if you’re a fly on the wall in any of their homes — I’ll tell you what: If you track the Confederate Army to the Dixiecrats, to the conversation of the Republicans, to the districts that were affected, you may be dealing with different labels, but if they were ever able to track down their ancestors, there’s a Confederate general in every damn living room.”

As for what House Democrats can do to force Senate Republicans’ hands, it’s not much.

“I’m not sure there’s much pressure the CBC members can put on the Senate,” said Assistant Minority Leader James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., also a member of the CBC.

Reid, according to aides, is considering moving ahead with the “nuclear option” to confirm nominations with a simple majority vote.

The potential for a rules change reminded Clyburn of how the vote threshold for filibusters has changed in the past.

“There’s precedence for this,” Clyburn said Tuesday. “When I was a young man and we were dealing with the civil rights issues of the ’50s and ’60s, it was a two-thirds that were required, and the Senate saw that as an impediment to moving this country forward, and that’s when it dropped down to 60. Now we’re at the point where maybe we need 52.”

Butterfield agreed that — “regrettably” — the onus is in large part on Reid to force a rules change.

Leadership within the CBC stayed silent Tuesday in preparation for Wednesday’s meeting.

Following the Wilkins filibuster, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., chairwoman of the CBC’s Judicial Nominations Working Group, released a statement saying she would “lead a strategy discussion at the CBC meeting on Wednesday on moving African American judicial nominees through the Senate.”

One tactic could be an extrapolation of what CBC members are already doing: attack Republican obstruction of Obama’s nominees — particularly African-Americans. That could boost turnout from a critical Democratic voting bloc in 2014 and undercut the GOP’s “big tent” rebranding efforts.

“One of the severe impacts of [the filibusters], and in large part you see this in the Judiciary, is that the Obama administration has been working tirelessly to diversify the bench, and that means women and people of color on the bench,” said Marge Baker, executive vice president of People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group that tracks judicial nominations. “I think regardless of the motivation, it’s having a disproportionate effect on minorities and people of color, and that’s something to be upset about, and I do think it’s going to have an impact in 2014.”

In the Senate, Republicans aren’t buying it.

“No nominee has been filibustered because of their race. I totally reject that,” said Senate Judiciary Committee member Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., whose own nomination for a judgeship was blocked in the 1980s. “If that’s the tack they’re taking, I would be afraid that it would damage race relations unnecessarily and improperly.”

“I don’t think anybody’s given that any thought,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., “because that’s clearly not something that has motivated any of us, from what I can tell, on any nominees.”

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