Filibuster Wars

Power Grab at the Height of the Empire

Revolution #004, May 29, 2005, posted at

The political establishment of the United States is gripped by a raw and escalating struggle over power at the very heights of the empire.

A collision course has been set by the rightwing Republican forces that now dominate the Congress and the White House.

As we go to press, the public showdown is now set for the Senate floor on Tuesday May 24.

The Senate is scheduled to vote on ending their debate over Bush's nomination of Priscilla Owen for a federal judgeship.

If the Republicans don't get the 60 votes they currently need to "end debate", their leadership has announced they will simply change the Senate rules and forbid filibusters over judicial nominees, and then move on to confirm Judge Owen.

On the surface, these events may not appear all that earth-shaking. Many people don't see the impact this fight could have on their lives and hopes. Most people have no idea what a filibuster is.

And for this moment at least, this struggle still appears to be going through the traditional channels of political business-as-usual. This intense infighting is mainly taking place deep in the bowels of the U.S. power structure—where little packs of U.S. Senators scurry from secret meeting to secret meeting, stopping occasionally to posture and sound-bite in front of TV cameras. To put it crudely: None of this has the outward look of a coup d'etat. There are no tanks in the street, there have not been arrests or assassinations of opponents.

However, despite these appearances, this country is in the midst of a historic power grab that could have consequences as far-reaching as any coup d'etat.

Removing Obstacles By Any Means Necessary

"Now comes the revolution. If you don't implement a conservative agenda now, when do you?"

Richard Viguerie, founding leader of the Christian right, election eve 2005

In many ways, this is the moment that the Religious Right has been waiting and working for over decades. With high level support and funding, they have painstakingly increased their power throughout the Republican Party and at all levels of the state apparatus—including the military. In 2000, their leader George Bush took over the White House. And they now dominate both houses of the Congress.

In other words, key levers of power are there in their hands.

And at the same time, they are tremendously dissatisfied with what they have accomplished with that power so far. They want much, much more. They intend to make changes that are so sweeping and deep that there is no "going back"—so that their vision dominates the U.S. and their domination is permanent.

They want to drastically change what people are allowed to say, think and do. They want to force Christian fundamentalism to the center of society—as the standard for law, behavior, and morality. They want school children indoctrinated in their anti-science beliefs about Creationism and miracles, and they want teachers forced to lead their students in Christian prayer. They want biblical standards of punishment and behavior to become the law of the land— with all the horrors this would mean (including the severe punishment of children, the escalation of executions and the ominous demonization of gay people).

To impose their backward vision of family and submissive sex roles, they want to prevent women from controlling their own reproduction—including by criminalizing abortion and even birth control. And, they are in a frenzy to impose a sweeping censorship over anything they consider indecent and subversive—most cultural expressions of overt sexuality, revolutionary politics, anti-religious satire, teenage rebelliousness and much more.

This push for a Christian-fundamentalist police state has brought the issue of federal judges to center stage— because it has long been clear that to fully carry out their chilling vision they will need to make sweeping changes in the existing legal standards of the U.S.

Many federal court rulings over decades objectively represent legal obstacles to the Christian-fascist plans for the society and culture.

The federal courts have enforced a separation of church and state. They have stopped organized prayer in schools. And they have put limits on the government's power to censor both sexual and political matters. The Supreme Court has ruled that there is a constitutional "right to privacy"—and on that basis has knocked down state laws that criminalized birth control, abortion and gay sexual acts. Major Court decisions have ruled that advocating communist revolution or burning the U.S. flag should be considered forms of speech that are protected from criminal prosecution.

These are current standards of U.S. law that the Christian right has been determined to overthrow.

A Strategy for a Profound Change

For decades, extreme right-wing political forces tried to make constitutional changes piecemeal. In the Civil Rights days they called for impeaching the Warren Supreme Court that upheld desegregation. Since then, their successors have tried to pass a long series of amendments to reverse significant parts of the Bill of Rights—amendments to allow religious indoctrination in public schools, to ban abortion, to ban flag burning, to ban gay marriage, and so on. Though these efforts revved up their political movement, they never got enacted.

Now, with the heights of power in their hands, a whole different strategy presents itself. Rev. Rick Scarborough, leader of a large network of "Patriot Pastors," recently said: "It takes two-thirds of Congress, the President's signature, and three-fourths of the states to change the Constitution—or one judge." ( Newsweek , May 16):

In short: Instead of slowly rewriting what the Constitution says, they intend to pack the top court and then announce a change in what the Constitution means.

At the very time when Republicans dominate both the White House and Congress, there will be two, three, or perhaps even four vacancies on the U.S. Supreme Court over the next couple years. Seeing this opportunity, they are moving with a "now or never" intensity. They are determined to use their overall power to step-by- step bulldoze any legal and political obstacles to their recasting of the Supreme Court—and then of many of society's most basic rules.

It needs to be pointed out, again and again, just how extreme this whole plan and vision is.

The current Supreme Court (which the Religious Right hates so much) is, in fact, a very conservative institution that loyally serves this whole oppressive system.

This is the same Supreme Court that helped carry out the virtual coup d'etat that put George Bush into power! On a day-to-day basis, this Supreme Court enforces modern capitalism—upholding and arbitrating the rules of capitalist property. This is a court that has allowed the round-up of immigrants without trial, that okayed unprecedented new police surveillance, and allowed the U.S. torture camps at Baghram Airforce base, in Afghanistan, and Guantánamo in Cuba.

And yet, after all that, when evangelist Pat Robertson gets on ABC's This Week (May1), he rages that the federal judges and the cultural changes they have allowed over a hundred years are a more serious threat to the U.S. than "bearded terrorists who fly into buildings." It shows the harsh war-like mentality of fascists straining for final victory.

Busting the Filibuster

So what, then, is this showdown in the Senate over?

The vast majority of Bush's new court nominations have been approved by Congress—often with very little debate or opposition. So far Congress has approved 204 of Bush's court nominees, 34 of them judges for the important Appeals Courts (just below the Supreme Court).

However the Senate Democrats have used the traditional Senate procedure called "filibuster" to stall the nomination of seven of the most extreme court nominations. And this is being treated as completely intolerable by the Senate's Republican majority.

Here is how that filibuster procedure works. On the Senate floor, it takes a majority of Senators (i.e., 51 votes) to approve a judge. However, under the Senate's traditional rules, a minority of Senators can insist on continuing the debate —thereby delaying any vote. Delaying a vote this way is called a filibuster. Filibusters have historically been a way to prevent a Senate majority from having their way, by stalling and by rallying public opinion. And often it has been used for reactionary purposes—as when Southern Dixiecrat senators filibustered on and on against civil rights bills in the 1960s.

According to the Senate's rules, it takes a "super-majority" to end a debate. This means that the Republicans need 60 votes to end the debate over their seven stalled judges.

This is what has frustrated the Republican leadership and the Christian-fascist right. The White House sent up those ugly right-wing judicial nominees to the Senate long ago, and the Senate Republicans have a 51 vote majority to approve them, but they don't have the 60 votes needed to end the debate.

And so, under the current rules, the Democratic minority in the Senate can stall the appointment of any particular nominee—virtually forever.

You might wonder: only 7 stalled out of 204? What's the big deal?

But for the top Republicans, getting their most extreme appointees confirmed is exactly the point!

The forces represented by George Bush, Bill Frist and Tom DeLay have no intention of getting this far in the game, and then accepting a Supreme Court freshly staffed with old-school "moderate Republicans" that essentially accept the current framework of the status quo! They don't want a future Supreme Court to look essentially like the current Supreme Court.

The whole point of their strategy now is to pack the next Supreme Court with a much more extreme new majority that will actually reverse major legal precedents and overturn established interpretation of what the U.S. Constitution means.

The Christian fascists are perfectly aware that any Supreme Court nominee that serves their purposes would certainly face a filibuster by a sizable chunk of the Senate. And so, they produced the present aggressive power play: They intend to simply abolish the Senate rule that allows filibusters for judicial nominees.

Current Senate rules require 67 votes to change the rules. But the Senate Republicans intend to simply bypass that rule too. They have dreamed up the "nuclear option" where Dick Cheney (who, as Vice President, presides over the Senate) will announce that the decision to abolish judicial filibusters can be made with a simple 51 vote majority.

This is a raw gangster move: If the Democratic opposition uses its traditional right to stall Bush's seven most extreme nominees, the Republican majority in the Senate and Cheney have announced they will simply change the rules and take away that power.

And you can almost hear them say: "Whaddaya gonna do about it?"

Implications and Outcomes

Harry Reid, leader of the Senate Democrats, offered a humiliating compromise weeks ago—promising to approve four of the stalled seven judges, and (according to one report) even secretly promising not to filibuster George Bush's first nominee for the Supreme Court.

But this slavish offer was arrogantly turned down by Republican Senate leader Bill Frist.

Since then feverish attempts to forge some kind of "compromise" have fizzled—the White House and Republicans are determined to strip the Democrats of any power to stall a judicial nominee, and they think they have the power to do it. And they seem prepared to weather any fallout.

As we go to press, it is still unclear what exactly will go down on May 24 and afterwards. But no matter what, a profound change is happening in the political life and norms of the U.S. government. Those holding supreme power in the Congress and White House are making an unprecedented power grab—with the obvious intention of wrenching the Supreme Court and then the whole society onto an extreme, new and sinister course.

They have ruthlessly shown their hand. They are mercilessly tearing that existing fabric of official establishment politics in ways that even have significant sections of the Republican Party blinking in disbelief.

Conservative columnist David Brooks warned that Frist is leading the Senate "into this bloody unknown." Republican Senator Arlen Spector publicly frets that events are stampeding toward "the abyss." There is open talk that this nuclear option may "destroy the Senate as an institution." No matter how these events turn out, their actions are threatening to pull apart the "center"—and important ways that state power has traditionally been exercised and justified.

These are important and ominous developments, even for the many millions of people who have no stake in this whole political and economic system. On one hand, the future demanded by these Christian fascists would be a horror for humanity, and the successful achievement of their plans would make the struggle for justice and liberation all that much harder. And, on the other hand, the very fact that official politics is lurching in such unpredictable and reckless ways to the right has the potential to stir millions of people to throw themselves into the political fray, and potentially raises profound new questions among them about what future we need to be fighting for together.

What Is Missing and Desperately Needed

Harry Reid, leader of the Senate Democrats, said on the floor of the Senate: "If Republicans roll back our rights in this chamber, there will be no check on their power. The radical, right wing will be free to pursue any agenda they want. And not just on judges. Their power will be unchecked on Supreme Court nominees, the president's nominees in general and legislation like Social Security privatization."

This statement captures the intentions of the Republican Right with a bluntness rarely seen in Congress. The "nuclear option" of Bill Frist and Dick Cheney is intended to brush aside any official obstacles to their agenda—and, yes, their plans obviously do not stop at picking judges, or even the new Supreme Court.

But it is worth looking closely and critically at Reid's opening sentence: "If Republicans roll back our rights in this chamber, there will be no check on their power."

For one thing, Reid and his Democrats have proven to be little of a real "check on their power"!

They have responded to the steady advance of the Christian fascists in the most cowardly and stupid ways imaginable—with endless offers of compromise, with promises of collaboration, with weak and quickly spurned appeals to moderation. And they have too often promoted, among the people, a naãve disbelief that all this is really happening, and a dangerous, intolerable paralysis as events move around us.

The same cannot (unfortunately) be said for the forces of the extreme right. Their movement is highly focused, financed and motivated. The most extreme, ignorant and fundamentalist sections of the population have been riled up and mobilized for exactly this fight. They are actively directed by their leadership, which now sits entrenched in the very heights of power.

There does truly need to be a "check on their power"—and more. And yet where is it? Where are the defiant cities filled with protest.and the campuses shut down in defiance...and the whole political climate where these swine are mocked and hounded wherever they move? It is not there yet, it is glaringly, maddenly missing.

And yet, isn't the potential and possibility obvious?

Though all these events, there has been mounting horror and even real fear over the rise of Christian fascism— among millions of people—and with it often a sputtering fury over the stand and response of the Democratic Party. There is, as Bob Avakian points out in this issue of our newspaper, a very stark "disconnect" between these people and the Democrats they have so often voted for.

It is past time to break out of the paralyzing framework of official bourgeois politics—to lose the illusions that "everything will swing back to normal like a pendulum" or that these fascists will be beaten back into their holes by politics-as-usual.

People need to be mobilized in their millions to actually fight those in power, and consciously prepare to wrench that power from their hands. And it is exactly the right time to fight to bring forward a new liberating and revolutionary vision of a whole different future—to contest boldly with the fascists in the spotlight.

Events are moving quickly. These high-level power plays will not run on forever without reaching some decisive resolutions.

In a very important sense, the outcome of it all is not yet decided. And yet, at the same time, important victories will almost certainly be won by the Christian fascists if a powerful political earthquake is not organized, and if key sections of the people are not brought into determined struggle in a whole new way.

These words are meant to sound the alarm —to provoke sleepless nights and tireless days, creative actions and defiant visions.