Sunday, May 22, 2005

Senator Frank Rizzo

“I would like to thank my friend, the honorable faggot from Maine…” So went the joke some twenty-five years ago when Philadelphians imagined Frank Rizzo’s conduct on the floor of the United States Senate, were he to succeed the then-retiring Senate Majority Leader Hugh Scott. Rizzo, the man who pledged as Mayor to “make Attila the Hun look like a faggot” just seemed to lack the necessary grace and decorum to wander the cloakrooms of that august institution.

The United States Senate. The World’s Greatest Deliberative Body. Well, maybe after Tuesday we can put that self-effacing moniker to rest. And on second thought, after our junior Senator Rick Santorum effectively referred to Harry Reid as “my good friend, the Nazi from Nevada,” maybe we should have sent the Big Bambino to Washington when we had the chance. At least he had a sense of humor. This is an historic week coming up. This may be the week that the U.S. Senate, like an institutional Humpty Dumpty, falls off the wall and lands foursquare in the cesspool that has become our national politics.

During the Clinton years, judicial and other nominations were frequently bottled up in Senate committees, so there is nothing new with the problems facing the Bush nominees. The filibuster on the floor was generally not necessary, as "blue slip" rules enabled any single senator to block a judge from an up or down vote, regardless of the degree of support for them on the floor of the Senate. The filibuster was famous as a powerful tool of southern Democrats in their efforts to oppose civil rights legislation, but it was just one tool in the arcane Senate rule book that gave power to the minority.

The change that will be sought this week––the elimination of the judicial filibuster––will be dramatic because it comes in the wake of the elimination of other rules, such as the blue slip rule itself, that gave power to the minority party. By pushing ahead on the nuclear option, this President and this Republican Party have determined that the final destruction of the Senate as it was created--the collegial and deliberative body that moved slowly and cooled the passions of the day--is a reasonable price to pay to assure that they retain total control over the upcoming Supreme Court appointments. Caught up in its own rhetoric of victimization and drunk with the power of the moment, the right wing of the Republican Party cannot allow the opportunity to be missed it its pursuit of its agenda.

In this Senate fight, the junior senators are the firebrands. John Thune of South Dakota, John Cornyn of Texas, and their compatriots are first-term senators whose mettle for battle is untempered by a reverence for institutional history. Others, like Rick Santorum, have little loyalty to the Senate as an institution, with its rules and formality and rituals, if it does not serve their higher mission. Many of them came from the House, where they came to power in the Gingrich revolution and are true believers in transforming American politics. They despise the condescending old guard, led by their good friend, the octogenarian Senator from West Virginia Robert Byrd. They cannot abide the duplicity of the moderates like their good friend, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. And they are waiting for the day that they can deliver the death blow to the wife of their arch-demon, their good friend, the Senator from New York.

This is a radical vote, and all the more so because it comes at the hands of elements of our democracy who for so many years were themselves the aggrieved minority and who relied upon the Senatorial rules to assert their will. The southern segregationists in the 1960s using the filibuster. Jesse Helms blocking votes on any judicial appointment from his state during the Clinton Presidency. Oren Hatch orchestrating the blue slip rules.

And that is the irony. What is cast as a vote in the name of ending judicial tyranny and moving the nation back toward a jurisprudence of original intent is itself a vote to undermine the very essence of the Senate as that institution was created over two centuries ago. Through this vote the careful balance of power conceived in Philadelphia will be shunted aside for a more simple formulation: one person, one vote. There is an elegant, almost democratic logic to it. But only the older Senators really understand how much is about to be lost, and it remains to see if any of them––John McCain, John Warner, Chuck Hagel, Arlen Specter, George Voinovich, Dick Lugar––stand up and join with the remaining New England Republicans to stand for nation over party and preserve the Senate as at least a shadow of its former self.

Saving that, the Senate will become just another legislative body, and in this partisan moment minorities will have no voice unless they choose to go along. The stakes going forward will be higher, the voices of moderation will be few, and as Frank Rizzo would have it, you will only call someone your friend if in fact they really are.

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