After the Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, President Clinton famously wondered aloud whether he was relevant anymore. Given the recent actions of congressional Republicans, House and Senate Democrats could be forgiven for asking the same thing about themselves.
Last week, Senate Republicans staged an almost 40-hour-long "reverse filibuster" to highlight the fact that Democrats have held up several of George W. Bush's judicial nominees. Never mind that Republicans held up many of Clinton's nominees toward the end of his second term. Never mind that Democrats have allowed the confirmation of 168 judges while only blocking six. Never mind that Congress is already more than a month past its original target adjournment date of Oct. 4. And never mind that many bills still await action. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who heads the Committee on the Judiciary, told The Hill that "hardly anything" on the Senate agenda "is more important" than the president's right to nominate judges.
To get their way, Republicans would dispense with centuries of parliamentary tradition. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) wrote in a National Review Online article last week that the U.S. Constitution requires only a simple majority to approve judges. Well, yes, but at least 60 senators must decide to cut off debate -- and Republicans don't have 60 votes.
Evidently frustrated by the existence of rules designed to promote bipartisanship and consensus, Republicans are considering other ways to go over the Democrats' heads. Several Republican senators told The Hill that they support using recess appointments to seat conservative judges (the appointments would last through the end of next year). President Bush is apparently considering this option.
Over the weekend, House and Senate Republicans struck deals on the contentious energy and Medicare prescription-drug bills. The fact that Democrats weren't even in the room for most of the negotiations no doubt made the process easier. As House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said of the Medicare deal, "Democrats have yet to see the details of this very partisan, backroom deal, but from what we know about it, it is disastrous for seniors." What's worse, Republicans included two Democrats as negotiators so they could say they struck a bipartisan deal. But as Pelosi correctly noted, "Fig-leaf bipartisanship does not make this a bipartisan compromise."
The same is true of the 1,700-page energy bill. As Pelosi said, "Special interests had special access, and the rest of us were left in the dark." You always have to watch out when Congress strikes these types of deals late in the night toward the end of the session. It's a chance for lawmakers to stick in goodies for their campaign contributors, or to slip controversial items into legislation that their colleagues won't have the time to review before voting. The latest example is that Republicans plan to make vouchers for Washington, D.C., schools part of a budget bill. If Democrats oppose the bill, there's a chance the government will shut down -- not exactly an appealing option, especially with five of the nine Democratic presidential candidates now serving in Congress.
Of course, the danger for Republicans in ignoring the Democrats is that they will be unable to accomplish their goals. Frist acknowledged that getting the Medicare bill through both the House and Senate this week will be difficult. And Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is threatening to filibuster the energy bill. But as Frist told Congressional Quarterly last month: "We are the governing majority. So people will look to us in this body to lead and to make sure that we deliver what the American people deserve. Indeed, we'll be judged, and that's our responsibility."
Let's hope that voters do hold Republicans responsible and send them the message that including both parties in decisions is the right thing to do. Clinton may have wondered whether he was relevant following the congressional election of 1994, but the government shutdown of 1995, for which the GOP paid a steep political price, proved that no party can govern unilaterally. It's a lesson that Republicans apparently still need to learn.
Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill.