TBT Gang of 14
By Alyssa Berg
During the 108th Congress, the United States Senate witnessed bitter partisan divides between Republicans and Democrats, which came to a head during debate over President George W. Bush’s nominees for appellate court judgeships. While Republicans held the Senate majority, Democrats were determined to use any means necessary to block the President’s nominees. The method they found most useful for this purpose was the Senate’s unique practice of the filibuster, a tactic wherein legislators speak for prolonged periods of time to hold control of the Senate floor, therefore blocking the passage of any further legislation.
Over the course of the 108th Congress, which lasted from 2003 to 2005, Senate Democrats employed the use of the filibuster ten times in order to block the confirmation of every appellate court nominee put before them by President Bush. Senate Republicans viewed this tactic as a prolonged obstruction of the legislative process and began to fight back, threatening to wield their control of the majority to amend the Senate rules and eliminate the use of the filibuster during judicial confirmation votes. This threat was colloquially termed the “nuclear option” by Senator Trent Lott, while Republican Senatorial leaders termed the initiative the “constitutional option.”
The 2004 elections brought about change in the makeup of the Senate, which affected the viability of the “nuclear option.” Having held only a 2-vote majority in the 108th Congress, Republicans now held the majority by a greater margin, with a 55-44 split between Republicans and Democrats, respectively. The strength of this majority allowed Republicans to think more seriously about their unchallenged ability to push through a ban on judicial vote filibusters. However, it was also noted amongst moderate Senators that if six Senators from each party were to form a coalition, the “nuclear option” could be effectively stalled if their twelve votes were cast against it. Furthermore, their votes would be enough to enable cloture on appellate court nominees.
A cloture vote on another of President Bush’s nominees, Priscilla Owens, was fast approaching at the end of May, 2005. With little hope for bipartisan cooperation, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Minority Leader Harry Reid saw few alternatives but to let Senate Republicans carry out the “nuclear option” and force a cloture vote by procedure rather than by negotiation. However, fourteen Senators felt differently. The “Gang of 14,” as they would come to be known, stepped forward with a bipartisan compromise. The Democrats agreed to pass cloture votes on several of the filibustered nominees, as well as on every future filibustered nominee, except in “extraordinary circumstances,” which were defined in the terms of the agreement. The Republicans, meanwhile, agreed to block any attempts to pass the “nuclear option” by their colleagues. The group of 14 Senators signed a document outlining these terms that held through the remainder of the 109th Congress.
While the “Gang of 14” faced criticism from many members of their respective parties, the agreement resulted in the confirmation of five nominees for appellate court judgeships and allowed the Senate to overcome partisan gridlock. Today, the “Gang of 14” continue to serve as an example of the power of compromise.