A citizens’ filibuster

A coalition of political groups called Oregonians for Checks and Balances staged a mock filibuster outside the Portland offices of Sen. Gordon Smith Tuesday, protesting the possibility of a Senate vote to eliminate filibusters on judicial appointments.

The filibusterers began speaking at 11 a.m. from a podium with an American flag next to it, under a tent outside the Portland World Trade Center at 121 S.W. Salmon St. Over 30 speakers read from cookbooks, the works of George Orwell and the Federalist Papers. The group was still reading at 3 p.m. and members said they planned to continue for several hours.

As Republicans prepare to move several of President Bush’s federal judicial nominees to the Senate floor this week, Democrats have become increasingly concerned about a plan by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., to call for a vote banning filibusters on judicial appointments – a plan nicknamed the “nuclear option” by Senate Republicans.

Frist said Tuesday that he plans to bring the nomination of Texas judge Priscilla Owen to the Senate floor today, meaning a Senate showdown over the filibuster could occur as early as next week.

Democrats prevented final votes on 10 of Bush’s judicial nominees during his first term in office, arguing that they were too conservative for lifetime appointments. Seven of those have been re-nominated, and Democrats have threatened to use the filibuster, a tactic of using prolonged speeches to delay votes, to block the nominees’ appointments once again.

A filibuster can only be overcome by a majority of 60 votes or higher, an amount the Senate’s 56 Republicans may have difficulty mustering. Once a vote is called to approve a judicial nominee, only 51 votes are required, the same amount that would be required to pass Frist’s ban on filibustering for confirmation votes.

The mock filibusterers picked their location outside Smith’s Portland offices because he is perceived to be a potential swing voter if the filibuster ban comes to a vote. Smith has voiced reservations about the potential showdown between Democrats and Republicans, but Smith’s spokesperson Chris Matthews said Monday that the Oregon Senator has given Frist a “qualified yes” on voting for the plan, according to The Oregonian.

“We want to let [Smith] know that people care about this,” said Erik Sorenstam of People for the American Way.

Critics of Frist’s plan – including Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada – have said that banning the filibuster would break a 217-year-old Senate tradition that allows the minority party to make a stand when they find a nominee to be too extreme. Reid has also expressed concern that the ban could clear the way to fill a Supreme Court vacancy with a simple 51-vote majority. A Supreme Court vacancy could occur as early as this year.

“This is the prelude to the Supreme Court battle,” said Charlie Burr, a spokesperson for Oregonians for Checks and Balances.

Burr echoed the concern that many who oppose the “nuclear option” have voiced during the debate over the nominees: that “aggressively conservative” judges could be appointed by a simple majority.

“If the minority voice is silenced, millions of people will have no representation in their government,” said Risa Cromer, one of the mock filibusterers in Portland. Cromer said that she became involved in the demonstration because she fears that conservative judges may overturn laws protecting abortion rights.

Among groups supporting Tuesday’s mock filibuster were Planned Parenthood, Oregon NARAL, Basic Rights Oregon, the National Council of Jewish Women, the AFL-CIO and the Sierra Club.