On CNN's Crossfire, former Reagan deputy assistant attorney general Victoria Toensing used falsehoods and misleading statements to claim that, in contrast to the 60 votes Republicans would need to defeat Democratic filibusters of a handful of President Bush's nominees, Senate Democrats could have overcome Republican obstruction of President Clinton's judicial nominees with only 51 votes.
First, Toensing falsely claimed that the "parliamentary maneuvers" Republicans used to block Clinton's judicial nominees were "holds," which Democrats could have "overcome by 51 votes, a majority of the Senate." In fact, Republicans did not rely primarily on holds -- which senators typically place on executive nominees only after the relevant committee has sent the nomination to the full Senate -- to block Clinton's nominees. Instead, Republicans blocked 60 of Clinton's nominees by bottling them up in the Senate Judiciary Committee -- denying them hearings and votes. The use of this tactic meant that the nominees were blocked before a senator had any opportunity to place a hold on the floor.
Next, when former Clinton White House counsel and fellow panelist Lanny Davis pointed this out -- that none of the 60-some blocked nominees were given even a vote in committee, and most were denied hearings -- Toensing replied that Democrats could have freed their nominees from the Judiciary Committee with a mere 51 votes, not the 60 votes that Republicans would need to break the current Democratic filibusters. In fact, in order to pass such a "motion to discharge," Democrats would have needed more than just 51 votes; they would have needed the support of the Senate majority leader. In a September 13, 1997, article on a Clinton ambassadorial nominee blocked in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, The Washington Post reported: "The rules also permit the Senate, by majority vote, to discharge a committee from consideration of a bill or nomination. But the Senate has never done so without support of the majority leader and probably could not do so because of the almost unlimited possibilities for delay and obstructions, according to Senate officials."
Such support was unlikely from Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS), the Senate majority leader from 1996 until the end of Clinton's presidency. Addressing the issue of the blocked Clinton nominees in 1998, Lott said: "Should we take our time on these federal judges? Yes. Do I have any apologies? Only one: I probably moved too many already."
In addition, if the majority leader somehow were to have allowed such a motion to reach the Senate floor, Republicans could still have filibustered it, requiring that Democrats muster 60 votes in order to push the nominee to the Senate floor.
From the May 19 edition of CNN's Crossfire:
PAUL BEGALA (co-host): Let me get this question out. I promise you, I'm going to get the question out. The question is this, was it wrong for Republicans to use parliamentary maneuvers on scores of occasions to keep Clinton judges from gotten an up-or-down vote?
TOENSING: I let Paul get his question out. Let me get my answer out. And which is -- those are holds, which senators approve all the time. And guess what? How many people can bring a hold down which is -- it isn't firm. That's No. 1. It's discretionary with the leader. No. 2, a hold can be overcome by 51 votes, a majority of the Senate. That's all the Republicans are asking for now. And I want to go back and say --
DAVIS: They also refused to hold hearings. Also the Senate controlled the Republicans --
TOENSING: Again, 51 votes.
DAVIS: -- who controlled the Judiciary Committee refused to even hold hearings.