Harry Reid and Senate Democrats have thrown down the gauntlet, in no uncertain terms. If GOPers follow through with their threat to pursue the so-called “nuclear option” (a procedural maneuver that would outlaw filibusters on judicial nominations and allow them to slide through on a simple majority vote), Senate Dems will stop cooperating with all the legislative lubricants (many of which require unanimous consent) that keep the chamber operating.According to (subscription-only) Roll Call today, every Senate Democrat is on board with this strategy, and while Republicans claim to have 50 solid votes for upholding the rule change that’s at the heart of “going nuclear,” their ranks are shaky, beginning with Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter.There are several smart things about the way Reid has approached this fight.First, he’s made it clear that Democratic resistance will not extend to issues like support for U.S. troops, urgent national security matters, or the basic functioning of the federal government. This will avoid some of the parallels the media, in its two-sides-to-every-argument approach to partisan issues, would otherwise draw to Newt Gingrich’s defiant and hugely unsuccessful government shutdown of 1995.Second, Reid is treating the “nuclear option” not as a procedural matter, or even as a defiance of Senate traditions, but as part of a broader pattern of abuse of power by the Republicans who control Washington. As such, he is linking Democratic opposition to this tactic to a broader message of reform, which is exactly what Democrats ought to be doing every day of the year. If nothing else, it will help remind the roughly one-third of the population that doesn’t know who runs Congress that Republicans can no longer pose as the anti-Washington party, because they are in charge of the whole federal government.And third, in terms of the underlying dispute over the judiciary, Reid is linking Democratic resistance to a long bipartisan tradition of opposition to one-party and executive-branch control of the federal bench. I hope Democrats take every opportunity to remind people that these are lifetime appointments we are talking about, which could have a profound impact on the laws of this country for decades.Now, Democrats obviously have a Big Bertha in reserve: the GOP’s real goal, which is to pave the way for Supreme Court appointments designed to overturn Roe v. Wade, the long-delayed payoff to the cultural conservative foot-soldiers of the Republican base. As a self-proclaimed (if moderate) pro-lifer, Reid may well have special credibility in opposing an indirect assault on the right to choose, by GOPers who know they would lose any straight fight on abortion.Add it all up, and you’ve got a formula for raising the stakes on this obscure-sounding conflict, and that’s what Democrats need in order to win. Some real drama is required to overcome the media perception that this is just cloakroom maneuvering by the partisan pols in Washington, over a snoozer of an issue.Maybe the Democratic battle-plan will act as a deterrent to the deployment of the nuclear option. Some GOPers, after all, want to use the so-called Judicial Obstruction issue as a conservative fundraising and crowd-pleasing device going into the 2006 elections. And even more of them won’t be happy with the consequences of provoking a partial shutdown of the Senate, interfering with all sorts of opportunities for pork-barrelling, constituency-tending, and beast-starving (not to mention those handy little bills naming some home-state highway interchange after a big contributor or local potentate).But deterrent or not, this is a fight well worth having, and a fight that can only be won if Democrats are serious and systematic about waging it with a large reform message.
TDS Strategy Memos
Latest Research from:
By Ed Kilgore
In looking at Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization from many angles at New York, one I noted was the lonely position of Chief Justice John Roberts, who failed to hold back his conservative colleagues from anti-abortion radicalism:
While the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization will go down in history as a 6-3 decision with only the three Democrat-appointed justices dissenting, Chief Justice John Roberts actually did not support a full reversal of Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. His concurring opinion, which argued that the Court should uphold Mississippi’s ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy without entirely abolishing a constitutional right to abortion, represented a path not taken by the other five conservative members of the Court.
When the Court held oral arguments on the Mississippi law last December, the conservative majority’s determination to redeem Donald Trump’s promise to reverse Roe v. Wade was quite clear. The only ray of hope was the clear discomfort of Chief Justice John Roberts, as New York’s Irin Carmon noted at the time:
“It seemed obvious that only Roberts, who vainly tried to focus on the 15-week line even when everyone else made clear it was all or nothing, cares for such appearances. There had been some pre-argument rumblings that Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh might defect, perhaps forming a bloc with Roberts to find some middle ground as happened the last time the Court considered overturning Roe in 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey. On Wednesday, neither Barrett nor Kavanaugh seemed inclined to disappoint the movement that put them on the Court.”
Still, the Casey precedent offered a shred of hope, since in that 1992 case some hard and imaginative work by Republican-appointed justices determined not to overturn Roe eventually flipped Justice Anthony Kennedy and dealt a devastating blow to the anti-abortion movement. Just prior to the May leak of Justice Samuel Alito’s draft majority opinion (which was very similar in every important respect to the final product), the Wall Street Journal nervously speculated that Roberts might be undermining conservative resolve on the Court, or change sides as he famously did in the Obamacare case.
In the wake of the leak there was some reporting that Roberts was indeed determined not to go whole hog in Dobbs; one theory about the leak was that it had been engineered to freeze the other conservatives (especially Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who during his confirmation hearings had said many things incompatible with a decision to reverse Roe entirely) before the chief justice could lure them to his side.
Now it appears Roberts tried and failed. His concurrence was a not terribly compelling plea for “judicial restraint” that left him alone on the polarized Court he allegedly leads:
“I would take a more measured course. I agree with the Court that the viability line established by Roe and Casey should be discarded under a straightforward stare decisis analysis. That line never made any sense. Our abortion precedents describe the right at issue as a woman’s right to choose to terminate her pregnancy. That right should therefore extend far enough to ensure a reasonable opportunity to choose, but need not extend any further certainly not all the way to viability.”
Roberts’s proposed “reasonable opportunity” standard is apparently of his own invention, and is obviously vague enough to allow him to green-light any abortion ban short of one that outlaws abortion from the moment of fertilization, though he does seem to think arbitrarily drawing a new line at the beginning of the second trimester of pregnancy might work. Roberts’s real motivation appears to be upholding the Court’s reputation for judiciousness, which is indeed about to take a beating:
“The Court’s decision to overrule Roe and Casey is a serious jolt to the legal system — regardless of how you view those cases. A narrower decision rejecting the misguided viability line would be markedly less unsettling, and nothing more is needed to decide this case.”
In his majority opinion (joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, and Amy Coney Barrett, along with Kavanaugh) Alito seems to relish in mocking the unprincipled nature of the chief justice’s temporizing position:
“There are serious problems with this approach, and it is revealing that nothing like it was recommended by either party …
“The concurrence would do exactly what it criticizes Roe for doing: pulling “out of thin air” a test that “[n]o party or amicus asked the Court to adopt …
“The concurrence asserts that the viability line is separable from the constitutional right they recognized, and can therefore be “discarded” without disturbing any past precedent … That is simply incorrect.”
One has to wonder that if Merrick Garland had been allowed to join the Court in 2016, or if Amy Coney Barrett had not been rushed onto the Court in 2020, Robert’s split-the-differences approach eroding but not entirely abolishing the constitutional right to abortion might have carried the day in Dobbs. But that’s like speculating about where we would be had Donald Trump not become president in 2017 after promising conservatives the moon — and an end to Roe.