Jimmy Stewart has joined the partisan combat over President Bush’s judicial nominees; Stewart, that is, in the fictional role of Sen. Jefferson Smith, the starry-eyed freshman lawmaker in the 1939 movie, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
The advocacy group People for the American Way, (PFAW) founded by Hollywood producer Norman Lear, launched a television ad campaign Wednesday featuring a scene from the movie in which Sen. Jefferson Smith filibusters on the Senate floor to block a corrupt pork-barrel project.
“Wild horses aren’t going to drag me off this floor until those people have heard everything I’ve got to say,” declares Stewart.
PFAW’s ad campaign is aimed at seven Republican senators in a bid to preserve the Democrats’ ability to filibuster Bush nominees. Altogether PFAW plans to spend $5 million on TV ads and other advocacy on the issue.
The Senate is likely to vote in the next few weeks on a move by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to lower the threshold for ending filibusters from 60 votes to 51.
Using parliamentary procedures, Republicans could make the change by a simple majority vote.
Blocking Bush nominees
Starting in 2003, Senate Democrats have used filibuster threats to prevent ten of Bush’s appeals court nominees from getting up-or-down Senate confirmation votes.
Under Senate rules, it takes 60 senators to agree to end debate, which means that 41 can prevent a nomination from being brought to a vote.
Lear told reporters the filibuster “has worked for 200 years for both parties.” He added that, “America works best when no one party holds absolute power,” an idea also espoused in the TV ad by Los Angeles firefighter Ted Nonini.
“The United States Senate is fast approaching one of the most dramatic moments in its history, and quite frankly, in the history of the United States,” said PFAW leader Ralph Neas, at a Washington press conference Wednesday at which the ad was unveiled.
Neas played a major role in the defeat of President Reagan's Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork in 1987.
“What I’m afraid of is that the Senate and how it has operated for over 200 years is in great jeopardy, and therefore, our democracy is at risk” Neas said.
He noted that he had served as an aide to Republican senators Ed Brooke of Massachusetts and David Durenberger of Minnesota in the 1970s.
Neas said Frist and “others on the radical right” were intent on lowering the filibuster threshold. “If they do so, it will obliterate 200 years of how the Senate has operated.” The filibuster, Neas said, is necessary “to make sure there are no abuses of power by the majority party.”
Seven targeted Republicans
The seven senators targeted in the first wave of PFAW ads are: John Warner of Virginia, John Sununu of New Hampshire, Gordon Smith of Oregon, Richard Lugar of Indiana, John McCain of Arizona, Susan Collins of Maine, and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.
A spokesman for Lugar said that the Indiana senator has not commented on the potential filibuster change. A spokesman for Sununu said “he has not taken a public position” on the issue.
“The vote is too close to call,” said Neas. “If it were a secret ballot, two-thirds of the Senate would oppose this horrible, unprecedented parliamentary dirty trick.” He estimated that there are “at least a dozen” undecided GOP senators.
Nominations, not legislation
Even though the “Mr. Smith” scene in the PFAW ad is entirely fictional, Sean Rushton, the executive director of the Committee for Justice, a group urging confirmation of Bush nominees, noted that the filibuster depicted in the film is a filibuster of legislation, not of a nomination.
The ad never mentions judges or the fact that the Senate Democrats have blocked confirmation votes.
Frist has not proposed changing the rule on filibustering legislation, but Neas argued that a change in filibustering nominees would inexorably lead to a change in filibustering legislation, an assertion that Rushton called “nonsense.”
Rushton also questioned whether the PFAW ad would be effective in persuading Republican senators. “If you’re Hagel, do you want even a whiff of the idea that you’re taking your marching orders from People for the American Way?”
Asked whether there are now enough Republican senators backing Frist to get to the 51 he needs to change the filibuster rule, Rushton said, “that’s like asking if you take the pie out of the oven a half hour early, is it still going to be as good?” With an April showdown seeming inevitable, Rushton said, “There’s a ripening process going on now.”