If it quacks like a filibuster, chances are it is one

Do you remember the point in the Clinton impeachment trial when former Arkansas Democratic Sen. Dale Bumpers, paraphrasing H.L. Mencken, said, “When you hear somebody say, ‘This is not about money,’ it’s about money. And when you hear somebody say, ‘This is not about sex,’ it’s about sex”? That would be a good idea to keep in mind when considering the Senate debate over the nomination of John Bolton to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Do you remember the point in the Clinton impeachment trial when former Arkansas Democratic Sen. Dale Bumpers, paraphrasing H.L. Mencken, said, “When you hear somebody say, ‘This is not about money,’ it’s about money. And when you hear somebody say, ‘This is not about sex,’ it’s about sex”?

That would be a good idea to keep in mind when considering the Senate debate over the nomination of John Bolton to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

“We are not filibustering,” Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) said last week.

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“We are not here to filibuster Mr. Bolton’s nomination,” said Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidTrump weighs in on UFOs in Stephanopoulos interview Trump weighs in on UFOs in Stephanopoulos interview Impeachment will reelect Trump MORE (D-Nev.).

“Since the administration has refused to provide [information], the only choice we have is to deny the vote on this nomination until there is full compliance,” said Sen. John KerryJohn Forbes KerryOcasio-Cortez and Cruz's dialogue shows common ground isn't just for moderates 'Landslide' for Biden? A look at 40 years of inaccurate presidential polls Trump campaign considering making a play for blue state Oregon: report MORE (D-Mass.). “That is not a filibuster.”
With apologies to Dale Bumpers and H.L. Mencken, you know when that many people say it’s not about a filibuster, it’s about a filibuster.

Just when it appeared that Bolton might squeak through the Senate, Biden and colleague Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) mustered support for a filibuster last week by assuring fellow Democrats that they would have the rhetorical cover of being able to deny that they were filibustering.

“We want to make clear that this is not a filibuster,” the two wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter last week. “It is a vote to protect the Senate’s constitutional power to advise and consent to nominations.”

Yeah, that’s the ticket! We’re not filibustering! We’re voting to protect the Senate!

Biden and Dodd are pushing the administration to give them the names of people mentioned in National Security Agency intercepts requested by Bolton. Democrats hope that something in those requests might support their contention that Bolton had twisted intelligence and bullied underlings to push his own ideological agenda.

But Biden and Dodd freely admit that they have no idea whether the intercepts will reveal anything of interest.

“There may be nothing improper in this,” they wrote last week about Bolton’s intercept requests, “or there may be something highly improper. But we won’t know unless we see the very same information shown to Mr. Bolton.”

Administration sources argue that the information is highly classified and that giving the names to a leaky Senate committee would be a good way of making that highly classified information public. They also point out that Bolton was not a habitual requester of such information, making just 10 out of the State Department’s 400 such requests during the period in question.

In addition, the administration has already shown the top two members of the Intelligence Committee, Sens. Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsEPA exempts farms from reporting pollution tied to animal waste EPA exempts farms from reporting pollution tied to animal waste Conservatives spark threat of bloody GOP primaries MORE (R-Kan.) and Jay RockefellerJohn (Jay) Davison RockefellerBottom Line World Health Day: It's time to fight preventable disease Lobbying World MORE (D-W.Va.), much of the material, minus the names. They concluded there was nothing improper about the requests.

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Given continued opposition to Bolton, it might make sense for the administration to show Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Biden, the ranking Democrat, the same information it showed Roberts and Rockefeller, that is, the requests without the names.

Would that be enough for Democrats? If Biden and Dodd were simply searching for information, it might be. But remember: No matter how much they say they just want the documents, no matter how much they say they are protecting the prerogatives of the Senate — no matter how much they say all of that — the fact is, they want to kill the Bolton nomination. If the requested information doesn’t help them, they’ll try something else.

You don’t believe it? Go back to the day in 2003 when Democrats launched their first filibuster of a Bush judicial nominee, Miguel Estrada.

At the time, they said that filibuster wasn’t really a filibuster, either. It was only about the Senate’s need to see confidential documents written by Estrada when he worked in the Justice Department.

“The issue we’re facing today,” then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said in March 2003, “is simply a question of precedent: Do we want to set the precedent that nominees who come before the Judiciary Committee and the Senate should not have to be compliant, should not have to be forthcoming with regard to the information that is requested of them?”

But it turns out that that wasn’t the real story. The filibuster was a real filibuster, and Democrats wanted to kill the nomination, no matter what they said at the time.

Last week, as Democrats again denied that their filibuster was a filibuster, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), like Bumpers, found himself relying on folk wisdom.

“We’ve got what looks to me like a filibuster,” Frist said during floor debate. “It certainly sounds like a filibuster ... it quacks like a filibuster ... and it looks like we have, once again, another filibuster.”

Yes, that seems to be the case. Just remember: When they say it’s not about a filibuster, it’s about a filibuster.

York is a White House correspondent for National Review. His column appears in The Hill each week. E-mail: byork@thehill.com