The filibuster fight will be disastrous for the GOP

In 1936, President Roosevelt had just won reelection by one of the largest margins in history. His Republican adversary, Kansas Gov. Alf Landon, carried only Maine and Vermont. Riding this swell of popular approval, FDR challenged the conservative rulings of the Supreme Court, which had invalidated many of his prized New Deal measures.

In 1936, President Roosevelt had just won reelection by one of the largest margins in history. His Republican adversary, Kansas Gov. Alf Landon, carried only Maine and Vermont.

Riding this swell of popular approval, FDR challenged the conservative rulings of the Supreme Court, which had invalidated many of his prized New Deal measures. Knocking the “nine old men” of the court, he proposed to add six new judges to help with the workload — in reality, to pack the court.

Despite his top-heavy Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, the public backlash was so severe that Roosevelt couldn’t pass the court-packing bill. The unpopularity he triggered by trying so weakened him that he was unable to pass much of anything for the next four years.

A similar fate could await President Bush if the Christian right succeeds in embroiling him in a battle to change the filibuster rule for judicial nominations. The filibuster, once seen as the last refuge of racists seeking to thwart the progress of civil-rights legislation, has increasingly become part of our checks-and-balances system. Changing the rules in the Senate will be seen as the modern equivalent of the court-packing scheme of FDR.

Read the polls. Newsweek’s survey of 1,000 adults March 17-18 fairly worded a question to find out public opinion on this issue:

“U.S. Senate rules allow 41 senators to mount a filibuster — refusing to end debate and agree to vote — to block judicial nominees. In the past, this tactic has been used by both Democrats and Republicans to prevent certain judicial nominees from being confirmed. Senate Republican leaders — whose party is now in the majority — want to take away this tactic by changing the rules to require only 51 votes, instead of 60, to break a filibuster. Would you approve or disapprove of changing Senate rules to take away the filibuster and allow all of George W. Bush’s judicial nominees to get voted on by the Senate?”

The results show the trouble the Republicans will make for themselves by trying to jam through a change in the filibuster rules. Only 32 percent approved of the change in rules, while 57 percent, including 60 percent of independents, opposed it. Even among Republicans, 33 percent disapproved of the change in the rules.

The Schiavo case amplifies the concern of moderate voters over a possible rules change to block filibusters. The attitude of GOP conservatives, led by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), that moderate judges needed to be punished for their independence sends a chill up the spines of most independent voters.

With the filibuster decision bookended by the Terry Schiavo case before and a Supreme Court confirmation battle likely following it, the issue has the potential to spell disaster for the Republican Party.

Now that Iraq seems to be more pacified and the war on terror is receding as the key national issue, Bush can no longer count on his success in protecting America to anchor his popularity. His inept handling of the Social Security reform issue further drains his approval ratings.

But an attempt to switch the rules in the middle of the game on judicial filibusters will really make his alliance with the Christian right the main issue in his second-term presidency, with disastrous results.

Americans are simply not on board with his Moral Majority agenda. They voted for Bush twice — or once — despite his advocacy of a pro-life position, and his Schiavo posturing alienated moderate voters even more. His attempt to bar a filibuster will be seen as an effort to steamroll America into accepting the radical-right agenda on moral issues and will cost Bush the ballast he needs to appeal to the center of American politics.

The fact that only 10 judges are really at issue in the filibuster rule underscores the need for mature reflection before Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Bush mortgage the White House and the Republican Party to an effort to jam a rule change through a reluctant Senate galvanized by a hostile public.

Morris is the author of Rewriting History, a rebuttal of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) memoir, Living History.