Human Nature

The Nuclear Transfer Option

The off-and-on principle of up-or-down votes.

No longer feeling Fristy. Click image to expand.
No longer feeling Fristy

Last week at a Republican fund-raising gala, President Bush saluted Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, and House Majority Whip Roy Blunt. “In the last two elections, the American people made clear that they want judges who faithfully interpret the law, not legislate from the bench,” Bush told the crowd. “The Senate also has a duty to promptly consider each of [my] nominees on the Senate floor, discuss and debate their qualifications, and then give them the up-or-down vote they deserve.”

This week, Republicans will put that principle to the test—but not in the way they’ve advertised. As the Senate approaches nuclear war over judges, the House will take up stem-cell research. On the former issue, Republican leaders have a majority. On the latter, they don’t. The real test of a principle—in this case, majority rule—isn’t whether you invoke it when it’s convenient. The real test is whether you practice it when it isn’t.

Four years ago, Bush restrictedfederal funding of embryonic stem-cell research (or ESCR) to cell lines derived before Aug. 9, 2001. Last year, 58 senators and nearly half the House signed lettersasking him to relax that restriction. For at least three years, most senators have supported legislation that would approvehuman therapeutic cloning. Last year, more than 200 members of the House co-sponsored legislation to expandESCR funding.

None of these bills ever got an up-or-down vote. Why? Because the same Republicans who now preach about up-or-down votes bottled them up or threatened to filibuster them.

Start with last year’s House bill. According to the Washington Post, “the House leadership prevented itfrom getting hearings or a vote.” In February, its sponsor, Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del., reintroduced it, but the leadership was still keeping it off the floor. In March, Castle took his case to a group of GOP House leaders from which DeLay was notably absent. Castle went in with polls and a list of two dozen Republican co-sponsors. He came out with a deal finally allowing a floor vote, though the Post added, “House sources emphasized that no promises have been made to prevent the leadership from altering the bill in a way that would make it less attractive to stem-cell supporters—or from even replacing it with a new bill.” Blunt’s spokeswoman told the Post, “That decision is with the speaker.”

In the Senate, advocates of greater ESCR funding reportedly still have 58 votes. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., filed a bill in February to fulfill their wish. A month later, the New York Times reported that Frist “has not indicated plans to bring it up for a vote.”

This week, Castle’s bill, or something like it, is supposed to come up for debate in the House. It would be the first floor action on this issue in either chamber since Bush issued his policy four years ago. Castle says he now has majority supportin the House. Are conservatives willing to test that claim? No. Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., who chairsthe 100-strong caucus of House conservatives, told the Los Angeles Times his caucus is upset “that this bill was scheduledfor a vote.”

If a majority of legislators vote for the bill, will Bush accept that? No. He says he’ll vetoit. Bush’s point man in the House, Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., proudly toldthe Wall Street Journal, “We have a veto-sustainable minority.” When Bush and his allies are in the minority, a minority is good enough.

The bill may not even make it to Bush’s desk. If it passes the House, it still needs Frist’s approval to reach the Senate floor. According to the New York Times, Frist said last week that “he wanted to consult with colleagues before bringing the bill up for a vote.” And if it gets that far, Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., promises to filibuster it. Some things, you see, are more important than an up-or-down vote.