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Two GOP senators want to end the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees

Mike Lee
Mike Lee
Justin Sullivan / Getty

  1. On Wednesday, Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Mike Lee (R-UT) introduced a proposal to let all Senate nominations be approved by a simple majority vote, reports Politico's Burgess Everett.
  2. The proposed rules change would cement Senate Democrats' fall 2013 move to weaken the filibuster's hold on nominations. And importantly, it would go further, allowing cloture to be invoked for Supreme Court nominations with a simple majority.
  3. The Senate Rules Committee will vote on the proposal later this year. If it gets out of committee, it would be approved if two-thirds of the Senate votes in favor.
  4. But because of opposition from both parties — Democrats newly enamored of the filibuster now that they're in the minority, and Republicans fearing liberal Supreme Court nominees from a Democratic president — it will likely fail.

The political context

Though this reform proposal is being pushed by two conservatives, it would have the potential to pay off big for whichever party wins the 2016 presidential election. By 2020 — the end of the new president's first term — several Supreme Court justices would be getting up there in years. Liberal justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer would be 87 and 82, and conservative justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy would both be 84.

Depending on which of those seats opens up (if any), the conservatives could lose their narrow 5-4 majority on the Court — or enlarge it. And several important rulings, such as Roe v. Wade , Citizens United v. FEC, or various Obamacare decisions, could potentially be reversed.

Alexander and Lee argue that, throughout most of the Senate's history, Supreme Court nominees could get confirmed with the support of a simple majority. The routine use of the filibuster, they say, is a recent development. Lee has been making this argument since 2010 — before he was even sworn in as a senator. Informed by a previous controversy when Democrats filibustered several of George W. Bush's judicial nominees despite their majority support in the GOP-controlled Senate, Lee said, "We can make a strong argument that the filibuster ought not apply with respect to judicial nominees."

With a Democratic president and a Republican Senate, it would appear to be the perfect moment when a reform like this could be pushed through without advantaging only one party.

But the proposed rules change would weaken the power of the Senate in general. It gives the president more say over who will sit on the Supreme Court, and senators less.

That's probably the best explanation for why members of both parties are apparently reluctant to back it. Everett reports that Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) have both expressed opposition to the idea. So though the filibuster lost some of its bite in 2013, it will likely live on to irritate presidents for at least a few more years.