Washington (AP)--In a sign of escalating tensions over the right to block judicial nominees, Democrats announced Tuesday that they had scrambled a bomber squadron capable of executing a "nuclear option."
The move is the latest turn in a long-running Senate squabble over the filibuster--a parliamentary tactic that Democrats have used to block President George Bush's judicial appointments. Earlier this year, Republicans proposed doing away with the filibuster in order to pass Bush's most conservative nominees through the Senate. Democrats quickly labelled the rule change the "nuclear option", a phrase which most analysts believed referred to the damage it would cause within the often bipartisan Senate.
But in a Washington press conference on Tuesday morning, Senator Harry Reid (Democrat, Nevada) suggested, for the first time, that the "nuclear option" might actually refer to the use of nuclear weapons.
"This morning, at 4:35AM local time, elements of the 109th Strategic Bomber Wing took off from Nellis Airforce Base in Nevada," the Democratic minority leader told reporters gathered on the Capitol steps. "Until the matter of the judicial filibuster is resolved, a contingent of nuclear-armed B1-B bombers will remain airborne over the US twenty-four hours a day, ready to strike at anytime."
Reid declined to comment on where the bombers would be instructed to attack if Senate Republicans were successful in overturning the filibuster rule, but an e-mail sent late Monday by Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean advised the evacuation of all Democrats from Republican held states.
"If you live in or near a major population center in Texas, Florida, or Tennessee, we urge you to take a vacation until the filibuster issue is settled," the e-mail read in part.
Senate Republicans expressed shock at the Democratic Party's latest tactics. "That the Democrats must rely on nuclear brinkmanship to further their agenda is a sign of how weak the party has grown," Senate majority leader Bill Frist (Republican, Tennessee) said in a statement. "But not even the threat of Armageddon will deter us from taking down the activist judges who feel it is their right to murder innocent Americans like Terry Schiavo."
Frist went on to ask Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen to begin the evacuation of Memphis, Nashville, and Chattanooga.
A final vote on the filibuster could come as early as this week.