WASHINGTON -- Voters from across the country lobbied Capitol Hill Wednesday as part of an unusual movement to support their senators' right to make endless speeches.
At issue is the filibuster, that time-honored parliamentary tactic of using lengthy oration to stall a vote on contentious proposals.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is seeking to eliminate the filibuster, which he has derided as unfair because it enables minority Democrats to block Republican initiatives--chiefly, President George W. Bush's nominees to federal judgeships.
Known as the ''nuclear option,'' Frist's proposed change in Senate rules would replace a super-majority of 60 votes now required to shut down a filibuster, with a 51-vote simple majority of the 100-seat chamber.
Senate Democrats and some Republicans stand opposed, saying the speechifying represents an integral part of America's system of political checks and balances, designed to prevent any one branch of government from overreaching its bounds.
With a number of lifetime appointments to federal appellate courts hanging in the balance, the filibuster has drawn support from civil rights, labor, environmental, pro-choice, and interfaith groups opposed to Bush nominees they and Democrats have described as outside the American mainstream.
''It is absolutely unconscionable that the president and Senate Republican leaders are prepared to destroy our system of checks and balances over a handful of unfit, unqualified judges,'' said Wade Henderson, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR).
Henderson's organization and a number of other groups have banded together under the banner of the Coalition for a Fair and Independent Judiciary, which sponsored Wednesday's Senate lobbying effort by voters from six states whose senators had yet to decide or declare their position on the filibuster. These were Maine, Nebraska, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
Voters from New Hampshire had lobbied their senators on Tuesday, said LCCR spokeswoman Mistique Cano. Wednesday's effort, she added, involved a small but determined band of some 35 voters.
''These ordinary Americans are utilizing the democratic process to make their voices heard,'' the coalition said in a statement. ''They are traveling from across the country to meet personally with their senators' offices, delivering the message that it is wrong to break the rules in order to change the rules.''
''Preserving the filibuster preserves the Senate's constitutional obligation to advise and consent on judicial appointments,'' it added.
The coalition began airing radio advertisements Tuesday seeking to mobilize support for the filibuster among listeners in Maine, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
''The nuclear option isn't just a partisan power grab, it's a direct attack on our system of checks and balances and the independence of our courts,'' said the ad, produced by SaveOurCourts.org, a project led by LCCR.
Democrats last year blocked 10 of Bush's nominees through filibuster threats, meaning they would need 60 votes in order to win confirmation to lifetime seats on the nation's second highest court, the federal court of appeals. They have threatened to block again the seven that Bush re-nominated this year.
Frist in turn has threatened to use the Senate's Republican majority to introduce the ''nuclear option,'' in part because Republicans fear that Democratic stalling could affect a Supreme Court vacancy were one to open during Bush's second term.
Democrats reportedly failed Tuesday to win Frist's agreement to a compromise in which they would drop objections to some of Bush's nominees in exchange for promises that Republicans would not eliminate the filibuster.
Republican and Democrats long have battled over judicial confirmations. Nevertheless, ''the Senate has confirmed the overwhelming majority of President Bush's judicial nominees, 205 so far,'' said John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO labor federation, a member of the coalition.
Apart from Sweeney's organization and LCCR, groups in the Coalition for a Fair and Independent Judiciary include the Alliance for Justice, Americans for Democratic Action, American Association of People with Disabilities, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and Feminist Majority.
Also in the bloc are Human Rights Campaign, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, NARAL Pro-Choice America, National Employment Lawyers Association, National Organization for Women, National Partnership for Women and Families, National Senior Citizens Law Center, National Urban League, People For the American Way, Service Employees International Union, Sierra Club, and YWCA USA.
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