By BILL STRAUB
Scripps Howard News Service
May 25, 2005
The Senate seemed destined for a showdown this week over the efforts of Democrats to waylay a handful of President Bush's nominees to the federal bench via filibuster. Republicans, demanding a floor vote for all the president's nominees, threatened to unleash the "nuclear option" - a plan to change Senate rules to reduce from 60 to 50 the number of votes needed to end debate.
Both sides warned of stark repercussions if the other side prevailed. But 14 senators - seven Democrats and seven Republicans - reached a compromise that essentially will permit votes on some of the president's pending judicial appointments but not all. In the future, the group agreed, filibusters will be avoided except in "extraordinary circumstances."
If the agreement derailed a destructive showdown over minority rights in the Senate and the use of the filibuster, it also resulted in some political winners and losers. Here's a look:
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid: The Nevada lawmaker succeeded in maintaining unity among the Democratic minority - none of the 44 threatened to side with Republicans - and achieved his goal of retaining the judicial filibuster as an option, though one that can be rarely used. He also established that the majority GOP can't run over the Democrats.
At least Reid sounded like a winner.
"The success of the nuclear option would have marked another long, sad stride down an ever more slippery slope toward partisan crossfire and a loss of our liberties," Reid said. "Instead, this is the moment we turned around and began to climb up the hill toward the common goal of national purpose and a rebuilding of America's promise."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.: The erstwhile GOP presidential candidate is thought to be considering another White House run - even though he'll be 72 when 2008 rolls around - and his leadership role in fashioning a compromise further strengthens his bipartisan bona fides. His efforts will do nothing to endear McCain to the party's social conservative wing, but he was unlikely to attract its support in any instance.
Interestingly, at least two other Republicans party to the compromise - Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina - endorsed McCain over Bush for the GOP presidential nomination in 2000.
"We tried to avert a crisis in the United States Senate and pull the institution back from a precipice," McCain said.
Senate "moderates": The term doesn't necessarily describe the political leanings of all 14 signatories - Graham, for one, has a conservative voting record - but moderate does describe their desire to find common ground and treat those residing on the other side of the aisle with a modicum of respect. The moderates have been quiet in recent years as partisan bickering in the upper chamber has become more pronounced. The pact could be viewed as a sign of things to come.
Senate Republican leader Bill Frist: The Tennessee lawmaker, with the support of conservative interest groups, pushed the envelope on killing judicial filibusters, maintaining that all of the president's nominees merited a floor vote. Ultimately, at least two nominees will be skipped over, the filibuster survived and Frist proved unable to hold his caucus.
Like McCain, Frist has his eyes on the White House and the question becomes whether he can count on the continued support of social conservatives in light of his failure to deliver.
"The bottom-line is that the 48 percent of us who did not vote for President Bush still have a voice in our government, and Senator Frist and the radical right-wing extremists were prevented from obtaining absolute power," said Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean.
Social conservatives: Groups like American Values and Focus on the Family expended considerable capital - political and otherwise - to kill the judicial filibuster but came up short. Gary Bauer, president of American Values, called the deal a "travesty," asserting that it is now "more likely that radical social change will continue to be forced on the American people by liberal courts committed to same-sex marriage, abortion on demand and hostility to religious expression."
Said James Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family: "This Senate agreement represents a complete bailout and betrayal by a cabal of Republicans and a great victory for united Democrats."
President Bush: The president never explicitly called for the end of judicial filibusters but he did call on the Senate to give his nominees a full floor vote, a goal he failed to achieve. The compromise is being seen in some quarters as a friendly warning: do a better job of consulting with lawmakers before sending up names.
Regardless, the administration put the best face on the turn of events.
"I'm pleased that the Senate is moving forward on my judicial nominees who were previously being blocked," Bush said Tuesday in Rochester, N.Y. "These nominees have been waiting years for an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor, and now they'll get one. It's about time we're making some progress."
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