The use of the filibuster in the U.S. Senate and the president's judicial nominations have certainly been popular topics of conversation in recent weeks. Print ads, radio spots, and television commercials have all highlighted the irrefutable harm - or unquestionable good, depending on your point of view - that the filibuster represents. What is not often mentioned is the impact this debate could have on other items of importance to the country and Alaska, such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the energy bill, health care, and the highway bill.
Let me make it clear that I support an up-or-down vote on all nominations brought to the Senate floor, regardless of the president nominating them or which party controls the Senate. These nominees deserve to be considered based on their merits. Under the "advice and consent" process, every senator has the right to vote against a nominee if he/she does not believe the nominee is qualified for the position, but it is not fair to the nominees to have their lives placed on hold, sometimes in excess of two years. Nor is it right to perpetuate the many vacancies in our courts, particularly when we are seeing the caseload exceed the capacity of the sitting judges.
Last Congress, 10 of the president's judicial nominees were filibustered. The impasse over these nominees has led the Senate majority leader to consider the possibility of seeking a ruling that the use of the filibuster on judicial nominees is unconstitutional, thus allowing an up-or-down vote on their confirmation. Some have dubbed this the "nuclear option." Democrats have threatened to shut down the Senate through procedural tactics, such as the filibuster, if this ruling is agreed to.
There is plenty of blame to go around as to which side has stopped judges in the past, whether on the floor or in committee. But this misses the point of where we are today. The argument shouldn't be about whether we invoke the constitutional option, or "go nuclear," but how we make the confirmation process work. We need to act together as senators to define what is best for the institution. Constructive dialogue over how we achieve the goal, a fair process to confirm fair judges, is necessary.
In April 2003, I joined with all of my fellow freshmen senators in writing to Majority Leader Frist and then Minority Leader Daschle expressing our concern about the breakdown in the federal judicial nomination and confirmation process. We expressed our hope for a "bipartisan solution that will protect the integrity and independence of our nation's courts, ensure fairness for judicial nominees, and leave the bitterness of the past behind us."
What happens if we cannot reach that agreement? At stake for Alaska is much more than whether a judicial nominee is confirmed or not.
For the first time in ten years, the Senate has included a provision in the budget resolution to open ANWR. The House passed an energy bill that includes ANWR along with a number of other provisions that will benefit Alaska. The Senate has taken up the highway bill that contains a considerable amount of federal dollars for Alaska's infrastructure development. But if the Senate is paralyzed because of the dispute over judicial nominees, none of these bills become law and Alaska does not see the benefits. Alaska has a tremendous opportunity this year in the U.S. Senate in terms of developing our resources, our economy, and our future. None of this, however, will matter much if the Senate is locked in partisan wrangling over judicial nominations.
I remain committed to a constructive solution and have encouraged Senate leaders on both sides of the aisle to find another way, to allow for an up-or-down vote on judicial nominees while respecting the traditions of the Senate. It is my sincere hope that we will be able to reach a compromise to enact legislation to stimulate our economy, protect national security, and promote the national welfare, and to provide advice and consent, and to vote on the president's nominations.
Lisa Murkowski is a U.S. senator from Alaska.
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